During a 1950 NAACP legal strategy session, lawyers decided to challenge public school segregation head-on. Civil rights attorneys, concerned that the pronounced white Southern paranoia about sexual contact between black male and white female teenagers might provoke violence, reasoned they must pursue desegregation of high schools with particular care and instead chose to work their lawsuits up grade-by-grade. The NAACP represented African American parents who filed lawsuits against segregated school districts in Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. These suits reached the United States Supreme Court in 1952, the court consolidating the cases under the title Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, (KS), et. al. The court announced its decision on May 17, 1954. In overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke for a unanimous court in declaring that “In the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court delayed its implementation of Brown for a year. The May 31, 1955, implementation order, known as Brown II, set no firm deadline for school districts to achieve integration, only urging local authorities to proceed with “all deliberate speed.” The court failed to define the threshold at which a school district achieved desegregation, leaving that matter to the federal district courts. Finally, the court provided a list of reasons school districts could use to delay implementation, such as administrative difficulties.
As a result of all of this temporizing, the integration process dragged on for years, and more than a decade after Brown many Southern schools remained substantially segregated. As historian Richard Kruger notes in his book Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality, “Throughout the balance of the Fifties, the South interpreted ‘all deliberate speed’ to mean ‘any conceivable delay’ and desegregation was far more a figment in the mind of the Supreme Court than a prominent new feature on the American social landscape.”
The Court also unintentionally gave opponents of integration a chance to organize what came to be known as “massive resistance” to the Brown decision. Initially, white Southern segregationists reacted with surprising calm to Brown. “No citizen, fitted by character and intelligence to sit as a justice on the Supreme Court . . . could have decided this question other than the way it was decided,” an editorial in the Knoxville Journal proclaimed, while the New Orleans States-Item called for “calmness and moderation.” The delays created by Brown II, however, allowed integration opponents to whip up fear and resentment.
In July 1954, plantation manager Robert P. Patterson organized the first “White Citizens Council” in Sunflower County, Mississippi. "Integration represents darkness, regimentation, totalitarianism, communism and destruction," wrote Patterson. "Segregation represents the freedom to choose one's associates." Labeled by NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as the “uptown Klan,” these organizations drew segregationist lawyers, doctors, bankers, merchants and other influential citizens, and used legal and illegal methods to prevent enforcement of Brown. Byron De La Beckwith, who assassinated civil rights campaigner Medgar Evers in 1963, belonged to a chapter of the White Citizens Council. However, these groups used their financial and political influence primarily to minimize integration.
African Americans who filed integration lawsuits lost jobs and could find no further employment in the white community because of boycotts organized by the councils. Furthermore, these groups raised millions of dollars to establish private “white academies” where parents wishing their children to attend segregated campuses could send their children. At the movement’s peak, about 1 million belonged to Citizens Councils across the South.
Under pressure from groups like the White Citizens Councils to take a more defiant stand against Brown, Southern legislatures tried various ruses to avoid integration. Faced with integration orders, school officials in Little Rock, Ark., and Norfolk, Va., completely shut down their public schools. Prince Edwards County, Va., closed its public schools for eight years to avoid admitting African American students. Some Southern states provided white parents vouchers to pay for tuition at private, non-integrated schools. Other states, like Alabama, passed “pupil placement” laws that complied with the letter of Brown but dodged the decision’s mandate for integration.
These statutes ostensibly allowed students to transfer from campuses where school administrators had racially assigned them. Theoretically, black students could transfer to white schools and white students to black schools. In practice, no white students requested transfer to underfunded and overcrowded black campuses, and school administrators concocted various reasons to reject African American students’ applications to attend white majority campuses.
Attorneys general in several Southern states began a coordinated legal assault on the NAACP, hoping to harass the organization into bankruptcy and to frighten its members into silence. African American teachers made up a large percentage of the group’s membership rolls, so states like South Carolina passed laws prohibiting educators from publicly advocating integration, forcing 24 teachers at Elloree Training School in Orangeburg County who belonged to the NAACP to step down. Needing income, however, most teachers chose to quit the civil rights organization rather than leave their jobs, a drain that decimated many local chapters.
Southern states also forced state and local NAACP chapters to file membership lists and lists of contributors with the state government, lists that were made public. In states like Louisiana, the White Citizens Councils then used these lists to target civil rights activists for harassment, firings, and business boycotts.
In Texas, state Attorney General John Ben Shepperd pressured the state NAACP by forcing the group to cough up unpaid franchise taxes. He also insisted that the NAACP publicly file its membership list. Settling out of court, the NAACP agreed to pay the franchise taxes in return for the state agreeing not to challenge the civil rights organization’s nonprofit status. Resentment over the Texas NAACP’s decision to settle and the publication of membership lists prompted resignations across the state, with the number of branches plummeting from 76 to 46 and overall membership declining from almost 17,000 in 1956 to under 8,000 the following year.
This followed the pattern across the South. In Louisiana during the legal war against the NAACP, branches declined from sixty-five to seven and membership from just over 13,000 to under 1,700 in the year after membership lists were made public in 1955. In Alabama, the NAACP refused to hand over its membership lists and state Judge Walter B. Jones issued an injunction prohibiting the group from operating anywhere in the state, an order that stood for eight years.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.