One year ago next Tuesday, May 17, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision that public schools segregated on the basis of race are unconstitutional. This decision cut squarely across long-established mores and traditions in some 17 Southern states and in some states outside the South. It seems appropriate on this anniversary to review as much as time will permit something of what has happened in the South since last May, one year ago.
It should be emphasized at the outset that there are many “Souths” when it comes to viewpoints with respect to racial matters. Obviously the Georgia crackers who put the Talmadges in office, the North Carolinians who revere their Dr. Frank Graham, and proper Charlestonians would not react the same way to identical conditions. Moreover, different sections of the South differ sharply in their percentages of Negro population, in community leadership, in their cultural level, and in other matters affecting desegregation of schools.
One very significant thing has not happened: Blood has not run in the streets, and there have been no lynchings. The nearest to violence at all are a few demonstrations in some border states shortly after the decision was handed down. Some newspapers and more politicians sputtered recklessly, but most people took the decision in their stride.
Also significantly enough, when the North Carolina Democratic Convention met only three days after the decision, the keynoter drew a round of applause when he emphasized that “We have no other course except to obey the law as laid down by the court. To do otherwise would cost us our respect for law and order.” And the delegates promptly tabled a resolution critical of the court.
Furthermore, with less than a month after the Court’s decision, most of the major church groups aligned themselves in support of desegregation. It could be that they moved swiftly because of guilty consciences, for with the exception of the Catholic and Unitarian churches, Southern religious groups had not seemed to have their hearts in this practical problem of applied Christianity.
This is not to imply that there have been no tough spots. There have. Milford, Delaware, held the national spotlight in the face of organized opposition to desegregation. Ten Negro students involved were transferred to an all-Negro school. Yet, Dover and Northern Delaware communities now have partial integration programs in effect. In West Virginia, white students picketed some schools newly opened to Negroes last September. But the protests died of their own weight. About 1,000 Negro students have been integrated with 50,000 white students in 135 public schools in the state.
But in April of this year, a minister of a Baptist church near Parkin, Arkansas, has been dismissed after delivering a sermon opposing segregation. The Rev. Ed Jones says that last year he discussed the subject of integration in a sermon. Three weeks prior to his dismissal he preached on the subject again. He was then given a choice of not preaching on the subject or being dismissed as pastor. He was told to quit saying that segregation was un-Christian or quit his pastorate. It was something he could not do. In his words, “I had to say that segregation in the church is sinful and not Christian.” His dismissal was on a vote of 43 to 7 for dismissal. Another minister was ousted from another Baptist pastorate in Shellman, Georgia, last year. The Rev. Henry Buchanan expressed similar views to those of his colleague and was dismissed.
Another development on the debit side of the desegregation ledger is the formation of citizens’ councils, mainly, it seems, in Mississippi. These appear to be voluntary associations of white people in the community who organize to make it tough on both white and colored who advocate desegregation. Their tactics include mainly economic boycotts. Persons known to favor integration have their notes refused at the banks; find it difficult to get jobs; are dismissed from the jobs they have for no other known reason. Social ostracism is also among the weapons of these racial supremacists. Persons sympathetic to equal opportunities for both races find themselves shunned by their former associates. Counterbalancing these undemocratic practices is a move to set up a fund for victims of the councils. Individuals, church groups, and other fair-minded people are doing this to neutralize the evil effects of the discriminatory practices.
Looking at the bright side again for a moment, there is more heartening news. The racial bars in schools are being taken down gradually in St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Joseph, and numerous smaller cities. Organized opposition to this, started in St. Louis by a disciple of Gerald L.K. Smith, collapsed almost immediately. Six high schools in St. Louis were desegregated in February, and the only incident was the beating up of a white student, not seriously. One principal remarked after the experience of one month with desegregation that “It’s almost as though we had been going along this way for years and years.”
The District of Columbia is in a special category, in that the legal authority of the federal government was a major factor in the movement toward complete desegregation within 12 months. Here a positive stand was taken by the government, which could be meaningful to hesitant state and local officials. Certainly in the District the transition progressed remarkably well, while official indecision in Delaware, e.g., added to the problems. Over half of the students in Washington attend desegregated schools, and the ratio of Negroes to white students there is about 60:40. The only place that anything like real friction developed during this sweeping change was concentrated in a school with a small Negro enrollment in an area with a history of strained race relations.
Perhaps as significant as any thing else in the fermented picture of the South over segregation is to look at what has happened in a few communities where newspaper editors in the South took a firm stand on principle in the controversy. In Smithfield, North Carolina, famous for producing Ava Gardner, not Smithfield Hams, with a population of 7,200, the semi-weekly Herald, edited by Tom J. Lassiter, former teacher at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism, the editor discussed the issue fully and frankly in his columns, taking what was, for his community, a radical stand in support of the Court’s decision. Lassiter reprinted liberal articles from Time magazine and other publications bearing on the issue. The paper received and printed letters from only three persons opposing the decision. Furthermore, the editor received a number of compliments – and heard no criticism – on his front-page editorial written the day after the decision was handed down. Subsequent editorials on the same subject did not draw much comment. Editor Lassiter comments, “Someone constantly surprises you by saying quietly that he thinks the decision was just even though he hates to face the problems that the decision has created.”
In Cherraw, South Carolina, Mac Secrest, a North Carolinian and a former student at Duke and the University of North Carolina, runs the weekly Chronicle. Cherraw is a quiet old town of 4,836 on the banks of the Pee Dee River. It is in a farming community, but many of its residents work for hosiery yarn, rayon, and nylon plants. Secrest had this to say after the ruling: “Let us show that we have learned the lesson that it is best and wisest to accept with graceful resignation the inevitable … to Southern parents will fall the responsibility of teaching our children to overcome this (racial) prejudice. To do so we must accomplish the still more difficult task – that of ridding ourselves of it.” This and other editorials prompted four letters. One writer said the issue has two sides and will require time. Another feared the decision would result in more interracial marriages. The third said that people with whom he had talked admired the Chronicle’s stand, and the fourth wrote that “Negroes is all right in there places, but that isn’t with white people,”[sic] and suggested that the editor go back North or to Russia, wherever it was he came from. And to this the editor appended, when he printed it, a saucy note concerning his northern (Carolina) background and admitted memberships in such dangerous left-wing groups as the Kiwanis Club and the American Legion.
Down in Pritchard, Alabama, Charles O. Ditmars, who studied at the University of Alabama, his native state, at Duke, and at the University of North Carolina, publishes the Herald. Pritchard is a fast growing industrial suburb of Mobile. Since the Court ruling, Ditmars has not minced words. He said bluntly that the Court decision was the law of the land. And the brash veteran of Guadalcanal went on to add that when the diehard white supremacy boys march off to the foxholes in northern Virginia, the Herald would wave little stars and bars and send them boxes of cookies, once a year. Ditmar’s comments about the reaction to this paper’s stand: “Readers mutter, congratulate, and condemn, and that suits me.”
The interesting thing is that in these three cases, no advertisers have cancelled because of the stand; the circulation of all three papers continues to grow. One Cheraw Chronicle subscriber cancelled because of the paper’s stand, but circulation has increased about 50 percent during the last year. It would seem that the experience of these editors who have moved ahead of what is considered the prevailing Southern position on segregation suggests that many Southerners will respond to liberal leadership, and that newspapers’ business offices won’t collapse if they offer that leadership. One difficulty seems to be something of a vicious cycle. Many Southern newspapers echo the statements of congressmen and governors of their respective states, and then the congressmen and governors go around quoting the newspapers. It is something like the story of the man who stopped every morning in front of a jewelry store, looked in the window, and then walked down the street. One day the jeweler stopped him and asked why he always looked in the window. “Well,” he said, “I work at the factory. My job is to blow the whistle at noon. So I always stop to look at your clock and check my watch against it, so I will be sure that I blow the whistle at the right time.” “That’s interesting,” said the jeweler, “because I always set my clock by your whistle.”
However, while politicians and the majority of newspapers are setting their clocks by each other’s whistle, another voice is rising in the South and chiming in alongside the small town editors. It is the voice of the men and women who, many for the first time in their lives, are writing letters to daily newspaper editors. The largest paper in North Carolina, The Charlotte News, reports its mail heavy for months following the court decision. The News favored the separate-but-equal doctrine and expressed grave disappointment over the court ruling. For every four letter writers opposing the court decision, there were three for it. Other large papers through the South report the same reaction.
Another positive factor in the situation is the formation last year of the Southern Education Reporting Service, an objective, fact-finding agency established by Southern newspaper editors and educators with the aim of providing accurate, and unbiased information to schools, public officials, and interested lay citizens. Its circulation has reached above 30,000 and the Ford grant, with which it was originally started, has been in a measure extended, though its future circulation will depend upon subscription rates to cover cost of printing and mailing. Experience of the director, C.A. McKnight, a veteran Southern newsman, has convinced him of the following trends in recent months:
- Where school boards and administrators have taken a forceful and positive stand, desegregation has proceeded smoothly;
- The number of pupils engaged in strikes and picket lines has never been more than a small fraction of the total integrated student body;
- Military posts and Catholic parochial schools have undergone some degree of integration in virtually 17 states;
- Organized resistance to implementation of the court decision developed in almost every one of the states, with varying degrees of effectiveness;
- PTAs and teacher groups, medical societies, and ministerial associations are desegregating in ever increasing numbers;
- Unprecedented state spending to equalize white and Negro facilities is planned or under way in many states;
- The U.S. Attorney General and all states filing briefs with the court agree that federal district courts should be given a wide latitude to consider variations among states and communities.
Where do we go from here? The Court has not handed down its decree putting into effect its decision of a year ago. When it does, that decree will help answer the question. We do know that in recreational areas, in voting, in membership on school boards, city councils, and other public agencies, Negroes are participating in ever-increasing numbers. Heretofore, opportunities for Negroes in jobs and compensation for those who had jobs were very few and low compared with those for whites. The South is seeking new industries and development of resources. Yet it greatest untapped resource lies virtually unnoticed beneath the dark skins of its colored people. Maybe, as Alan Patton said, “Edicts from the top are not always at the bottom, but the acoustics are improving.”