Schools in Conflict: A History Lesson

Schools in Conflict: A History Lesson

By Leslie Dunbar

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 pp. 22-23

The Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision announced May 17, 1954 had been too long coming. The South’s political order, aided by the nation’s indifference to the ideals the decision professed, was the cause of the ensuing bitterness. It is not clear that the decision is fully yet accepted.

It had been painfully arrived at. The five cases decided that day, answering the constitutional question of racial segregation, had been in litigation for years. As John Egerton has recounted in his book Speak Now Against the Day, a week before the Brown decision, SRC had convened a four day conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. There they discussed how the region should adjust to the expected decision which had been forecast when the Supreme Court had, after its 1953 hearing of the cases, set the cases down for re-argument on five questions it had posed, which seemed to point toward a ruling against continued permissibility of segregated schools.

A year before Brown, the Southern Regional Council, through its staff and friends, had a central role in the preparation of what came to be known as the “Ashmore Report.” Harry Ashmore, then editor of the Arkansas Gazette, had been recruited by the Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Advancement of Education to lead a large new, comprehensive look at the structure of “bi-racial education” in the South. Amazingly, in less than a year a huge survey with a considerable amount of field work carried out by a sizeable and specially recruited staff, was done, analyzed, and published-the day before the Brown decision (The Negro in the Schools, University of North Carolina Press). The entire work was coordinated by Philip Hammer, a close friend over the years of the Council’s. One of the principal researchers was Guy Johnson, SRC’s first Executive Director. Serving with Hammer on the five-person central staff were SRC’s Harold Fleming, who did the final review of the material before Ashmore put his imprint on it, and two long-time Council members, John A. Griffin and Mozelle Hill. The book became the authoritative report on what “separate-but-equal” actually meant.

In that same year of 1954, SRC received a substantial grant from the Ford Foundation for the strengthening of SRC’s state affiliates, the Councils on Human Relations. (It would be the last Ford Foundation money received by the Council-possibly the last received by any civil rights organization-for about a dozen years.) The Councils on Human Relations formed a network of membership-based advocacy groups whose small staffs engaged themselves more vigorously in the pulsating turmoil of those days. In some states-Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia come first to mind-they were at the forefront of public dissent from the repressive policies and actions of the state governments. Local Councils sprang up. In other states-Mississippi principally, with Louisiana not far behind-repression was so strong that establishing an active Council on Human Relations was all but impossible.

A succession of field directors-Fred Routh, Paul Rilling, Paul Anthony, and Ed Stanfield-brought SRC into direct participation alongside the state Councils in their local battles, and most of those had to do with compliance with the law of the land regarding schools.

SRC and the Human Relations Councils also were involved closely with the organizations that arose to work for peaceable school desegregation. Towards that end, they fought against real or threatened school closings with which the “massive resistance,” led by Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, and others, sought to blanket the South.

“Save our schools” groups appeared across the South. There was in Little Rock the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, followed, as the crisis there receded, by the Women’s Emergency Committee for Public Schools. The Virginia Committee for Public Schools organized originally to struggle against the threatened school closings in Arlington, Charlottesville, and Norfolk-threats that became real in the latter two cities-but later spread elsewhere in the state. Help Our Public Education (HOPE) carried the fight in Georgia. The Committee on Public Education (COPE) and Save Our Schools (SOS) confronted in New Orleans the hard segregation acts of the state legislature and the local Citizens Council. And women in Mississippi, bonded together as Mississippians for Public Education, in 1964 were largely responsible for the peaceable token desegregation of the schools of Jackson and Biloxi.

All of the above groups were predominantly composed of and led by women. The full story of the work for civil rights by Southern women-white and black-has yet to be written.

SRC was, directly and through its work with state and local Councils, closely and intimately involved with all these efforts. Paul Rilling, field director at the time, was constantly in New Orleans in the Summer of 1961, working with COPE and SOS. Paul Anthony was similarly engaged in the 1964 desegregation of Mississippi schools.

SRC’s Leadership Project, led by Benjamin Muse, was its other field program. Mr. Muse, journalist, farmer, one time Virginia legislator and gubernatorial candidate, tirelessly roamed the South, speaking with political and business leaders, editors, and other influential persons. His message was, “lead the way to peaceable integration.” For a year or so, he was re-enforced in this advocacy by J.J. Brewbaker, retired superintendent of schools in Norfolk. Mr. Brewbaker had been superintendent there when the Commonwealth of Virginia forced the closing of his schools. He had had an experience that only a few others were unfortunate enough to undergo. He had retired in honor, and had a story to tell to other school leaders; that was his assignment.

In the first days of the Kennedy administration, Attorney General Robert Kennedy summoned a score or so of Southerners for a lunch discussion; three of them represented SRC. A practice that had begun even before the inauguration now picked up momentum. In part that was due to the fact that Harold Fleming, who had left SRC in March 1961, had created the Potomac Institute as a liaison between the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement and the federal government.

SRC was the private research center for the entire movement (not only regarding schools). The files grew daily as newspapers, magazines, and governmental and other reports were read, clipped, and filed. These files, housed today at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American History and Culture in Atlanta, were open to any person who asked. The press regularly sought information and consultation by visit or phone call. So, too, did government people as well as workers in other organizations.

SRC poured out a stream of publications. Some were mimeographed, the so-called Special Reports. Beginning in the school year 1958-59, a background report on school desegregation came out annually for the next five years. The forty-six-page 1959-60 report carried a typical refrain: “the basic issue had become the defense of the public schools.” The report concluded: “There is no reason to believe that this process has ended, or will be slowed.”

Also mimeographed were “Leadership Reports,” sent to a targeted list of business and key community leaders. In 1961-62, for example, they included the reprint of the address by a leading banker on the importance of law and order for securing outside capital investments, an outline of new school legislation in Georgia, and a new statement of the American Anthropological Association. By the time they ceased in 1964, forty-seven such “L Reports” had been published and distributed.

There were printed publications, too. In 1953, again in 1954, again in 1956, and once more in 1960, the Council published, in question and answer form, the pertinent facts about school desegregation. The 1960 report, for example, sub-titled “The First Six Years,” began with question one: “What Did the Supreme Court rule in Brown v. Topeka?” and ended with question thirty: “What can we do in our communities to help effect harmonious social change?” Appended were the Supreme Court’s opinions in the school desegregation cases, opinions in two other related cases, and suggested further readings for each of the thirty questions, and also for “longer reading.” They were sent to a great many organizations and persons.

Occasionally, pamphlets were commissioned by outside scholars. J. Kenneth Morland of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College wrote in 1963, under the joint imprint of the Council and the Anti-Defamation League, a widely read and cited pamphlet entitled Token Desegregation and Beyond. Emory University’s Donald Ross Green and Warren E. Gauerke in 1959 were authors of a pamphlet, If the Schools Are Closed: A Critical Analysis of the Private School Plan.

SRC’s own staff was busy, too. Muse wrote a book, Virginia’s Massive Resistance in 1961 (Indiana University Press). Three years later, as a project of the Council, he wrote Ten Years of Prelude: The Story of Integration Since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Decision (Viking Press).

And it was in the pages of New South, a forerunner of Southern Changes, that Robert Coles, who we then referred to as our “staff psychiatrist,” published the first essay from his study of the effects on children of school desegregation. This was followed by a pamphlet in 1963, jointly published with the Anti-Defamation League, entitled: The Desegregation of Southern Schools: A Psychiatric Study. Dr. Coles had begun his now famous field studies in the South in 1961 under SRC’s sponsorship. New South was used occasionally for special studies. Staige Blackford’s “Free Choice and Tuition Grants in Five Southern States ” took up virtually the whole of the April 1964 issue.

If the outcomes of the struggles are not all that we hoped for, we can rightfully believe and know that the hard fight was a good fight to have won, and that it created opportunities for SRC and others now to build on. A good education for all of the South’s young people-let us not forget this-was not possible prior to 1954. Now it is ours to realize.

Leslie Dunbar was executive director of the Southern Regional Council from 1961-1965. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.