Williams: Massive resistance hurt whites, too
A public apology for the racial discrimination that closed public schools doesn't go far enough, according to one man whose family was on the front lines of the struggle.
Charlottesville City Council approved a resolution October 5 that apologizes for its predecessors' role in thwarting integration in the 1950s.
Civil rights activist Eugene Williams says the apology to the 12 African-American students who were denied admission to Venable Elementary and Lane High School in 1958 should include their parents and the parents of the more than 1,400 white students whose educations were interrupted by segregation as well.
"It affected the parents of 1,415 students," says Williams, citing the number of white students displaced, according to a dissertation by Dallas Crow– Desegregation of Charlottesville, Virginia, Public Schools, 1954-1969: A Case Study. "Not all of those parents were financially able to send their kids to private school."
And 4 percent of the white students did not go to any school during the five months Lane and Venable were closed, says Williams, again referring to Crow.
Williams wanted City Council to make clear in its apology that 1,427 students were not allowed to enter school, not just 12.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against "separate but equal" in the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, Williams was active in the NAACP. Membership soared in the local NAACP chapter, which sought plaintiffs to sue to be admitted to the city's segregated white schools.
"The kids did not make the decision," says Williams. "Their parents made the decision."
When U.S. District Court Judge John Paul ruled in 1956 that the school system must integrate Lane High School and Venable Elementary School, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd formulated the segregation strategy known as massive resistance, which was passed by the General Assembly. It allowed Governor Lindsay Almond to close any schools ordered to integrate, and in September 1958, Almond closed schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County.
Charlottesville's were closed five months, and 50 years ago, in September 1959, nine black students finally were admitted to the white schools.
City Councilor David Brown agrees that it probably wasn't the black students' idea to file a lawsuit, and that their parents should be recognized. "I want to strengthen the language on the the courage of these families," he said before the October 5 Council meeting.
As for the whites who were affected, Brown believes the impact on them was different, and says the resolution is "nicely focused" on the African-Americans who struggled to integrate.
"Everyone else was collateral damage," says Brown.
The resolution now recognizes the families of the students and the work of the NAACP, and calls the closing of the schools "a disgraceful act."
And Brown feels the need to make amends for his fellow officials. "The City Council at that time was dedicated to stopping integration," he points out.
Charlottesville is not the only one apologizing for its inglorious past. In July, the Richmond Times-Dispatch admitted it was complicit in an unworthy cause, and expressed its regret.
Eugene Williams worries that newcomers to the Charlottesville that touts itself as a "world class city" aren't aware of its racist past, and he thinks it's important to remember the city's at-times less-than-admirable history.
"Parents had to carry the burden," he reiterates. "Black parents didn't know what might happen to their kids during the day. White parents didn't know what might happen."
Williams speaks from first-hand knowledge: He was the father of a plaintiff in the city's second wave of integration litigation, and with a police escort, his daughter was admitted to Johnson Elementary in 1960.
Updated October 6, 2009.