Almost immediately after Chief Justice Earl Warren finished reading the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education in the early afternoon of May 17, 1954, Southern white political leaders condemned the decision and vowed to defy it.
James Eastland, the powerful Senator from Mississippi, declared that “the South will not abide by nor obey this legislative decision by a political body.”
Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia described the opinion as “the most serious blow that has yet been struck against the rights of the states in a matter vitally affecting their authority and welfare.” At the time, Senator Byrd headed the “Byrd Machine,” Virginia’s most powerful political organization. He became the leading architect behind Virginia’s diehard segregationist campaign.
In August of 1954, Virginia Governor Thomas Bahnson Stanley created a commission to conspire to defy Brown. The Gray commission, named after State Senator Garland Gray, held that school attendance should not be compulsory; money should be allocated to parents as tuition grants if they opposed integration; and authorized local school boards would assign students to schools themselves.
By 1956, Senator Byrd had created a coalition of nearly 100 Southern politicians to sign on to his “Southern Manifesto” an agreement to resist the implementation of Brown.
On February 25, 1956, Senator Byrd issued the call for “Massive Resistance” — a collection of laws passed in response to the Brown decision that aggressively tried to forestall and prevent school integration. For instance, the Massive Resistance doctrine included a law that punished any public school that integrated by eliminating its state funds and eventually closing the school.
In addition to legal and legislative resistance, the white population of the southern United States mobilized en masse to nullify the Supreme Court’s decree. In states across the South, whites set up private academies to educate their children, at first using public funds to support the attendance of their children in these segregated facilities, until the use of public funds was successfully challenged in court. In other instances, segregationists tried to intimidate black families by threats of violence and economic reprisals against plaintiffs in local cases.
The most egregious violators simply closed the public schools. In response to a May 1, 1959 order to integrate its schools, officials in Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its entire public school system instead. The entire public school system remained closed for the next five years.
In September 1958 as schools in Norfolk, Charlottesville, and Warren County were on the verge of integration via court order, they were closed by state officials. Although the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the school-closure law, the General Assembly made school attendance optional.
Meanwhile, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas became a staging ground for an alarming picture of democracy gone astray. The response to the presence of the Little Rock 9 was so violent that President Eisenhower felt compelled to call in the National Guard. The Little Rock 9 case resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision Cooper v. Aaron (1958), a landmark ruling in which the Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision in Brown and the obligation of states to follow the mandate of the U.S. Supreme Court to desegregate schools.
In the face of this fierce and ongoing resistance, LDF sued hundreds of school districts across the country to vindicate the promise of Brown. It was not until LDF’s later victories in Green v. County School Board (1968) and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) that the Supreme Court issued mandates that segregation be dismantled “root and branch.” In these rulings, the Court outlined specific factors to be considered to eliminate the effects of segregation and ensured that federal district courts were able to more forthrightly to exercise their authority.
Learn more about the history of the landmark case, key players, and how Brown vs. Board shaped our nation.