On May 17 of this month our nation observed an important milestone—the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the segregation of students in public schools. In a unanimous decision it declared that such segregation was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Underlying this position was a basic conviction that equality and segregation were mutually exclusive, or as stated in the Court’s ruling, that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
In response to this ruling there were two contrasting reactions in our nation. In early 1956, a group of 101 Southern senators and representatives (97 of whom were Democrat) drafted a Southern Manifesto (officially titled “Declaration of Constitutional Principles”) accusing the Supreme Court of the “clear abuse of judicial power.” It maintained that the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution limited the reach of the Supreme Court on such issues and promised to use “all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution.”
Another type of reaction took place in a number of religious communities around the nation, especially in those that considered desegregation a faith and social justice issue inherent in the Bible’s prophetic tradition. The challenge for them was discerning how to participate creatively in the nation’s movement from courtroom to schoolroom.
A response in this category took place in our neighboring state of Kentucky in the town of Henderson in the fall of 1956. The first three grades in one of its elementary schools had some new black students, and the White Citizens Council of Kentucky called for a public meeting in the courtroom of the Henderson County Courthouse on Saturday evening, Sept. 22, to oppose this.
The Henderson County Ministerial Association, representing seven denominations—Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical and Reformed, Methodist, Southern Baptist, Southern Presbyterian, and Salvation Army—was concerned about this new development. Fortunately, it had already unknowingly prepared for it, first integrating the Ministerial Association itself, and then putting pressure on the town’s Carnegie Public Library to permit blacks to use it.
Members of the Ministerial Association decided to attend the Saturday evening meeting of the White Citizens Council which had already announced plans for a boycott of the desegregated school starting on Monday. At the end of the meeting the president of the Ministerial Association got up to read a statement in support of desegregation but was booed down before he could finish.
On Monday attendance at the school was down from 863 to 300 (including five black children), and on Tuesday, down to 206. Most of the parents were not opposed to desegregation but afraid to send their children through the surrounding mob of angry protesters.
The White Citizens Council then called for another public meeting on Tuesday evening, this time outside on the courthouse lawn, and went through town with a sound truck, urging people to attend and to join the boycott. In response the Ministerial Association urged parents through ads in the newspaper and on the radio to keep their children coming.
This time, however, the ministers decided on a new strategy. They got the names and telephone numbers of the parents at the school and a telephone team called to invite them to a parents’ meeting on Tuesday evening in the sanctuary of the E&R Church three blocks from the courthouse. At the meeting parents were invited to share why their children were continuing to attend school, and a solidarity of concern began to develop. Both the school superintendent and the police commissioner were present to reassure the parents about their children’s safety. After the meeting in the sanctuary, there was a time for refreshments and informal conversation in the fellowship hall. The next morning pupil attendance increased.
The intensity of the conflict also increased. On Thursday evening another White Citizens Council meeting was called for the courthouse lawn, and once again all the parents were invited to a gathering at the E&R Church. This time an even larger number came, and the next morning school attendance increased once again.
At a final White Citizens Council meeting outdoors on Saturday evening, two local Citizens Council leaders counseled the protesters to end the boycott and seek legal means for keeping black children out of the “white” schools. It was later admitted that this was the first time that the White Citizens Council had been defeated in the South.
Two of the major contentious issues in 1956—states’ rights vs. federal rights and judicial power vs. legislative power—are still with us today. But today there is a new reality developing. Our nation is becoming more separate and less equal. Black children across the South now attend majority black schools at levels not seen in four decades. A concentration of race and class disadvantage has increasingly been built into a system with far fewer resources. There is even a new educational secessionist movement anchored in the South through which groups of residents are renouncing membership in a larger school district to strike out on their own. And in the midst of it all a more reactionary Supreme Court is now intent on dismantling affirmative action and gutting voting rights.
“I very strongly prefer that my children attend racially diverse schools,” said Tania Nyman, a white mother of two, who is trying to prevent creation of new districts in Baton Rouge. “I believe that a public school system that is truly public and welcomes all children in the entire community is a really, really important foundation for democracy. But I suppose that sounds very old-fashioned. Doesn’t it?”
It’s time for some good old-fashioned ideas like that.
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This column by local writers is dedicated to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world of peace and justice. Opinions expressed in “Lion and Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, column coordinator, at 277-5135.