Williams: Massive resistance hurt whites, too

cover-eugene-williamsEugene Williams has been fighting for civil rights for over 50 years, and even when City Council apologizes for past wrongs, he reminds them that the battle isn't over.

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.


I think this gentleman's comments are very valid. The schools were closed to keep out the black students, but it also kept out the white students. Had I been in school at the time, I would have received no education during those 5 months. My white parents had very little education, barely got by on the money my father earned and certainly could not have sent me to a private school. I was at Albemarle when that school was integrated, and the world did not fall apart. Parents today, both black and white, need to see to it that their children take advantage of the education now available to them. Take seriously your parental responsibilities, see to it that your children take full advantage of opportunities Mr. Williams and others like him fought to achieve. Those who don't take advantage of what has been won, especially the black community, are doing a disservice to those who worked so hard for equality over 50 years ago. It's true, there is more to be done, but not just by the white community. Blacks and all other races have the responsibility to make full use of what the civil rights movement has accomplished.

I think Williams main point is that whites were not monolithically anti-integration. If 100% of the white majority had favored segregation, we would still have segregation. Some say we still have segregated schools although blacks and whites are in the same building. Gasbag has it right- be careful what you wish for. Schools are becoming resegregated due to the apparent unintended consequences of integration. Our children's education should trump our racial ideologies. If the civil rights struggle is not over, what rights are being violated now?

Derrick: I thought that a person had a choice as to whether to become an indentured servant? Granted, still a pretty miserable choice, but I don't think apologies are expected.

Times sure have changed. Back then we had to use police escorts to get the kids into the schools, a place the kids actually wanted to be.

Nowadays, we have to have full time cops in the schools to monitor the behavior of the kids who don't want to be there in the first place!

Has anything changed for the better in the last 50 years? Anything at all?

Really, my great great great grandfather was an indentured servant, and it has been hundreds of years and no apologies for the way he was treated. Should be thankful getting an apology so soon, and really when are we going to quit blaming our problems on the way society treated our ancestors or how we had a bad childhood, or how my momma didn't love me, or how my baby's momma didn't love me.

Derrick, The civil rights era has MANY survivors.

This man was alive during the struggle. He is here to read/hear the apology. Perhaps you don't think discrimination was wrong?

I'm sorry your ancestors suffered. But I don't see where this man blames his problems on the way his ancestors were treated. So it appears that you are are trying to shoehorn this issue that YOU have into this article.

I remain impressed by the dignity that so many African Americans involved in the cil rights struggle have shown through the years. While I agree with Mr. Williams, and I am sorry for the white citizens who may have been "collateral damage" in the struggle, I agree that the targets of the Massive Resistance struggle, the African-American schoolchildren, are the ones to whom the apology should be directed. I just wish more of our leaders exhibited the wisdom, grace, and inclusiveness reflected in Mr. Williams's remarks.