Commentary Magazine

The "New Reconstruction" in the South:
Desegregation in Historical Perspective

Two short years have passed since the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954 declaring segregation in the public schools unconstitutional. An event that is invariably described as “historic” has indeed begun to take its place as a landmark in American history. Two years’ time, however, is not much perspective, as historical views go, in which to attempt to assess the probable meaning and importance of a Court decision of the first magnitude. The historian recalls with a shudder what a perspective of a mere two years would have revealed to him about the historic meaning and importance of such earlier landmarks as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, the Fourteenth Amendment of 1867, or, for that matter, the Volstead Act of 1919. Such laws and decisions—all of which were in some degree nullified by events or public sentiment—also remind one of how precarious are the fortunes of American statesmanship when it operates against the mass opposition of a significant section of the country.

If in spite of these warnings one nevertheless persists in trying to assess the Court decision of 1954 in the perspective of history, there is one particular landmark with which a comparison is unavoidable: that one, looming out of the remote distance, is called Reconstruction. Long veiled in clouds of myth that obscured its real nature, Reconstruction is not a single towering peak, as it might seem, but a whole mountain range beginning with a sharply defined escarpment called the Emancipation. Proclamation of 1862, continuing through the Civil Rights Acts, the Reconstruction Acts, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and then declining into the tableland represented by the Compromise of 1877.

Reconstruction affords the most extreme example in our history of an all-out effort by the majority to impose its will upon a recalcitrant and unwilling minority region.Like Prohibition, in which the South and West tried to impose their moral ideas upon a recalcitrant Northeast, and like the present experiment in desegregation, Reconstruction followed hard upon a great war; but unlike them, it followed a war against the very region that was to be reformed. That war left the South virtually helpless for a time before the will of the conqueror. The victorious majority, filled with the moral idealism that had inspired its fight, was determined at all costs to fulfill its ideals and secure the moral fruits of victory in the defeated South.

In spite of the bad name Reconstruction has earned, an enormous amount of idealism and noble motives went into its making. It is comparable in this respect with the soaring ideals and lofty hopes that inspired some of the great revolutions in European history. The revolutionary architects of Reconstruction did not pause to quibble about state rights, and suffered from no scruples about the use of force. If the Constitution got in their way, they changed it or ignored it, and they treated the judiciary and the President the same way. As for the representatives of the states most concerned, they were not even admitted to Congress, much less consulted about their views, until the revolution was a fait accompli and a newly created electorate had sent representatives who accepted it.



On the face of it, Reconstruction was a success. The laws and Constitutional changes which it gave rise to seemed to leave nothing to be desired in the way of assuring four million Negro freedman first-class citizenship and equal rights. After all, it is merely the reinterpretation of one of the products of Reconstruction lawmakers—the Fourteenth Amendment—that has caused all the stir ninety years later and furnished the foundation stone of the New Reconstruction of our own time. And yet we know that the original Reconstruction, in spite of the heritage of law that has renewed its vitality a century later, was in most fundamental respects a failure. In spite of the relative weakness and helplessness of the resistant South, in spite of the determined idealism of the Northern reformers, their willingness to use force, to ignore scruples, to brush aside Constitutional restraint and override opposition, the fact is that the great experiment ended in disillusionment and default. The gains made on paper were never fully implemented in practice, or they were eroded away by compromise, concession, and “interpretation.” Apathy and indifference replaced the original idealism of the reformers. It was the will of the defeated, discredited, and, for a time, helpless South that prevailed in the end. Had it been otherwise there would probably have been no need for the New Reconstruction now taking place in the middle of the 20th century.

The failure of the Old Reconstruction naturally raises serious doubts about the future of the New Reconstruction. All the more so as the South now possesses formidable weapons of resistance. Far from being disfranchised, it has more than a hundred rep resentatives in Congress who are capable, as recent events prove, of mobilizing and uniting to resist desegregation. It has a powerful voice in one of the major political parties, and can no longer be completely ignored by the other. Moreover, all but a few of the reformers deprecate talk of coercive measures and the use of force. Gradualism, defined by the Supreme Court as “deliberate speed,” is the approved approach, and the Court has left the responsibility of planning and initiating the desegregation procedures to the local Southern school authorities. None of these circumstances would seem to bode well for the New Reconstruction.

True, the present Court has consistently, unequivocally, and unanimously held against segregation. But Americans have developed over the years a curious usage of the law as an appeasement of moralists and reformers. Given sufficient pressure for a law that embodies moral values of acknowledged reputability, the citizens will go to great lengths to gratify the reformers; they will even go so far as to unlimber the cumbersome machinery of Constitutional amendment. But having done this much, they are inclined to regard it as rather tedious of the reformers to insist upon literal enforcement. Under these circumstances the new law is likely to become the subject of pious reference, more honored in the breach than in the observance, a proof of excellent intentions rather than the means of fulfilling them. Much of the history of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Eighteenth Amendments illustrates this usage.



Will the history of the New Reconstruction repeat that of the Old? For a time after the decision of May 17, 1954, there seemed to be considerable grounds for thinking it would not. The restrained tone of the Southern press and the Southern leaders was the subject of wide comment and congratulation. There were no sensational explosions. The comment of the Nashville Tennessean on the day following the decision was not at all unique : “It is not going to bring overnight revolution,” said the editorial. “But the South is and has been for years a land of change. Its people—of both races—have learned to live with change. They can learn to live with this one. Given a reasonable amount of time and understanding, they will.” That summer Governor Frank G. Clement of Tennessee, a moderate on the race question, decisively defeated two candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination who flagrantly exploited the segregation issue. Scattered localities in the border states signified their intention to abolish segregation in schools. The late Howard W. Odum of the University of North Carolina, a distinguished sociologist who spoke with authority on the subject of race relations, predicted that “the South is likely to surprise itself and the nation and do an excellent job of readjustment.”

The history of Southern race relations in the ten years before the Court’s school decision seemed to give a good deal of support to such a prediction. The crisis of bitterness between the races had been reached and passed during the war years. The direful predictions of postwar violence that would exceed the blood-letting following the First World War had not been fulfilled. The return of large numbers of Negroes to the polls after a half century of disfranchisement, and after the courts had ruled out white primaries, was accomplished quietly. The increasing appearance of Negroes on school boards, juries and grand juries, in police uniforms, and in white-collar jobs and managerial positions, raised few cries of Negro domination. A series of Supreme Court decisions culminating in the two important opinions of 1950 breached the wall of segregation around public institutions of higher learning in all but five of the Southern states. By the summer of 1954 more than a thousand Negro students had squeezed through the breach onto formerly all-white campuses. There they were accepted by white students without any of the ugly incidents that had been expected and predicted. White Southerners had “moved over” to make room for colored Southerners in various professional associations, collegiate and professional athletic teams, in interstate carriers, dining cars, and Pullman cars. Southern white draftees drilled, ate, and shared barracks with Negro draftees in all the military services, and took orders from officers and sergeants of both races. On the big military reservations and posts in the South, their children went to the same schools. Was it not true, then, to say that the New Reconstruction had begun at least a decade before the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 banning segregated public schooling? And had not the South adjusted peacefully, if grudgingly, to each successive stage?

Surveying all these revolutionary changes in established Southern practices, changes few thought they would live to see, men of good will began to entertain hopeful expectations about the future. For by the middle of 1954 the New Reconstruction could be con-fidently claimed to have accomplished more genuine change in some aspects of human relations than the Old Reconstruction had done with all its blood and thunder and histrionics. And this estimate still left out of account the many advances accomplished by private, voluntary, and Southern efforts—the most momentous of which was the virtual elimination of the lynching crime. The Jim Crow system still stood, but its foundations had been shaken. Segregation was on the defensive; in some quarters it was in full retreat. If all this had been accomplished without bloodshed and the calling out of troops, reasoned the optimists, perhaps a new day had really dawned. Perhaps the South might eventually take the transition to un-segregated public schools in its stride as well.

Much would depend upon the nature of the Supreme Court’s decree of implementation that was not to come until a year after the original decision. In the meantime neither the forces favoring compliance nor those for defiance showed their hand fully. There was neither any appreciable progress toward desegregation of the schools, save in the border states, nor did the segregationists mobilize for all-out resistance. It was a period of wait-and-see.



There were a few signs of what was to come. Mississippi came forward in her historic role as leader of the Southern racial reaction, just as she had come forward in 1875 to overthrow Reconstruction and in 1890 to disfranchise the Negro: the third Mississippi Plan took the form of the Citizens Councils, which were started in Indianola in July 1954 to wage an unremitting war in defense of segregation. Balancing these developments on the negative side, however, were the swiftly adopted and executed plans of public school desegregation in Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, and other border cities. Voices counseling compliance and moderation continued to be lifted in the South, even in parts of the Deep South. Temporary silence on the part of some Southerners normally given to vehemence on race policy may have been due to shock. On the whole, however, during the first year that followed the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, there was remarkably little of the hysteria that was to develop later.

Even the Supreme Court’s decree of May 31, 1955 implementing the decision against segregated schools did not break the spell. In fact it was greeted in the South with expressions of relief, and even hailed as signifying the Court’s acquiescence in indefinite postponement. The Court had indeed set no deadline for compliance. The decree referred sympathetically to the “solution of varied local school problems” which would require time, it placed the responsibility for solving these problems upon local school authorities, and it charged the Federal district courts with the duty of passing upon “good faith implementation.”

It was the reference to the district judges and “their proximity to local conditions” that raised the hopes of pro-segregationists. The old four-handed American game between the South, the courts, the Negro, and the Constitution has been going on throughout our history, and the South knows all the gambits. For much the longest time, the courts have played into the hands of the South and the game has gone against the Negro. If now the Supreme Court had changed partners, one could still set one’s hopes on the district judges, many of whom were natives of the states in which they sat. This hope was most explicitly voiced by Lieutenant Governor Ernest Vandiver of Georgia, who rejoiced that “they are steeped in the same traditions that I am. . . . A ‘reasonable time’ can be construed as one year or two hundred. . . . Thank God we’ve got good Federal judges.”

In the months that followed, the segregationists watched with dismay while the judiciary ground out their answer. By January 1956, nineteen court decisions involving school segregation cases had been rendered, and in all of them the lower courts upheld the Supreme Court ruling that enforced segregation was a denial of equal protection of the law. Some of the decisions took a lenient view of the amount of time required to desegregate, but others stressed the “prompt and reasonable start” required by the Supreme Court’s directive and set dates for compliance. School segregation laws were toppled in Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas. On February 15, Federal District Judge J. Skelly Wright, Orleans-born and educated, smashed Louisiana’s plan to preserve segregation in schools through state laws. Judge Wright admitted all the terrible difficulties involved in desegregation, as well as the need for “the utmost patience, understanding, generosity and forbearance” on the part of all. “But the magnitude of the problem may not nullify the principle,” he declared in a ringing conclusion. “And that principle is that we are, all of us, freeborn Americans, with a right to make our way unfettered by sanctions imposed by man because of the work of God.”



On top of these blows from quarters where comfort had been expected, came renewed attacks from within the South—from the Negroes themselves. No longer the familiar, submissive creatures whom Southerners thought they knew so well, Negroes realized that they at last had the law and the courts on their side. They were ready to assert their rights more forthrightly than they had for three generations. In the summer of 1955, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed petitions for desegregation signed by local Negroes with one hundred seventy school boards in seventeen states.

Something much like a panic seized many parts of the South, a panic bred of insecurity and fear. Resistance hardened up and down the line, and in places stiffened into open defiance. The Citizens Councils movement spread out from Mississippi into Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina; similar organizations appeared elsewhere. Signers of desegregation petitions in Mississippi, in Selma, Alabama, and in Orangeburg, South Carolina, were fired from their jobs and refused credit by stores and banks so as to compel them to withdraw their names. There were individual cases of violence against NAACP members and at least one murder. Leadership of the opposition was not limited to disreputable hate groups and rural demagogues. It was Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia who called upon the South for “massive resistance”; and it was the conservative leaders of his state who claimed the right of “interposition” of state authority against alleged violations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court, and who pointed the way toward the private-school plan as a means of preserving segregation.

In the first three months of 1956 the legislatures of five Southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia—adopted at least forty-two pro-segregation measures, mainly dealing with schools. Virginia’s interposition plan, or some form of it, was taken over by these states. Alabama was the first actually to apply the fateful words “null, void, and of no effect” to the Supreme Court school decision. The resolution was endorsed by a voice vote in the Senate, and an 86-to-4 vote in the House. Georgia also adopted the “null and void” approach, adding a strongly worded declaration that it intended to ignore the Supreme Court decision. Mississippi declared the decision “unconstitutional and of no lawful effect,” and created a State Sovereignty Commission “to prohibit . . . compliance with the integration decisions.” Avoiding the word “nullification,” South Carolina contented herself with “condemnation of and protest against the illegal encroachment of the central government.”

All of these states devised some form of stand-by legislation to be brought into play once desegregation became an immediate threat. These plans took the form of substituting some form of private for public schools, permitting wide powers to local authorities in the “assignment” of students, or authorizing the sheriff to remove any student whose presence might lead to disorder. South Carolina was prepared to close any college that undertook to desegregate itself. Georgia was ready to close or lease any public school so threatened, or for that matter any public park, playground, golf course, or swimming pool.

The NAACP became the object of considerable legislative aggression. South Carolina made it unlawful for the state, county, school district, or municipality to employ members of the NAACP, asked the United States Attorney General to place it on the list of subversive organizations, and ordered an investigation of NAACP activities in a Negro college. Mississippi required teachers and other officials of publicly supported schools and colleges to list all organizations to which they belonged, and Alabama authorized two counties to fire any teacher belonging to an organization which advocated racial integration. The legislature of South Carolina requested the State Library to remove from circulation all books “antagonistic and inimical to the traditions” of that state.



Swept by the contagion of defiance, several states that had hitherto taken a moderate stand now switched over suddenly to the resistance. Under the leadership of Governor LeRoy Collins, Florida had professed an official policy of gradual acceptance of integration. In March of this year, however, Governor Collins joined the militants with the declaration that “we are just as determined as any Southern state to maintain segregation.” In the same month Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, where there has already been some school integration, took a stand for segregation that won the praise of the executive secretary of White America, Inc. The governors of North Carolina and Texas have announced strong support for new segregation laws in their states. The segregation issue figured prominently in seven state primaries during the spring. Southern moderates in Congress were brought under such heavy pressure to sign the Southern “Declaration of Constitutional Principles” on March 12 that all the Congressmen of seven states participated. In all, 101 of the 128 members from eleven states signed the manifesto deploring the Supreme Court’s “clear abuse of judicial power” and commending “the motives of those states which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means.”

No doubt, a good deal of this defiance can be dismissed as the bluster of political expediency. But it would be a grave mistake for the rest of the country to dismiss the whole resistance in those terms. Much of it is deeply felt and in deadly earnest. However hollow and antiquated the Constitutional arguments may seem to others, they are self-evident truths to a great many people in the South. It is a real Constitutional crisis that we are facing, not a sham parade in ancestral costume. The law of the land has been clearly defined by the Supreme Court of the United States, and that definition has been just as clearly rejected by responsible spokesmen of millions of our people.

It would also be foolish to underestimate the means of resistance, evasion, and delay available to leaders of defiance. Only a few of these devices have been mentioned here, and fewer still have been tested fully in court. There are no “teeth” in the desegregation ruling such as the Civil Rights Acts put in the Fourteenth Amendment during Reconstruction, or the Volstead Act put in Prohibition. The only person who can be jailed for disobedience is the state official who refuses to execute an order of the court specifically applying to him. State laws, it is true, can gradually be brought to test before the courts. But there are some eleven thousand local school boards in the segregating states to which the ball can be passed by the state, and they in turn can invent new troubles for the courts.

The possibilities are extensive. “There is no one way, but many,” as John Temple Graves of Alabama pointed out. “The South proposes to use all of them that make for resistance. The decision tortured the Constitution—the South will torture the decision.” The Court ruled against segregation on grounds of race or color only—not against segregation on grounds of health, morals, illegitimate birth, public welfare, “friction,” achievement and aptitude tests, or gerrymandered districts. On grounds like these the Negro was for half a century denied the ballot that the Fifteenth Amendment plainly said he could not be denied on grounds of race or color. When all such possibilities are exhausted, there still remain token compliance accompanying real evasion and all the devices of “voluntary” segregation which are effectively and quietly used in other parts of the country without any legal complications whatever.



This is admittedly a dark picture. Little wonder that the optimism of 1954 has given way to the prevailing pessimism of 1956. Many minds are haunted by the prospect that the New Reconstruction is doomed in the end to repeat the frustration and failure of the Old Reconstruction. Yet after making due allowance for all the discouraging evidence that would seem to point to failure, one can still draw a great deal of hope and encouragement from a long-range view of the two periods of Reconstruction:

1. In the first place, the Old Reconstruction had the effect of driving the Border states into the South’s orbit and gaining their support. They became more “Confederate” after the Civil War than they had been during it. Lincoln’s masterly work of detaching them from the seceding states was undone and reversed by his Radical successors. The New Reconstruction, on the other hand, has had just the opposite effect. The defection of the Border states from the cause of segregation is becoming more and more apparent. The struggle within Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma is far from won, but each month brings news of additional retreats along the segregation line. Not one of the Congressmen from Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Border states most closely identified with the South, signed the Southern manifesto in March. The struggle for the allegiance of the mid-South states, including Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas, all of which have accepted some desegregation in their schools, is still being waged and the outcome is undecided. The prospect over the years, however, would seem to be for a steady enlargement of the reconstructed areas, a process of moving in gradually from the Southern periphery and tightening Reconstruction’s hold around the die-hard states of the Deep South.

2. In both Reconstruction periods, the opposition sought to unite Southern resistance by appealing to race prejudice and white solidarity. The white supremacy campaign was extremely effective after the Civil War and is enjoying considerable success now. But there are significant counter-trends within the South today. The most important of these in the long run is a cleavage between generations. While no systematic general study of the subject is available, sample polls in Texas and Florida, and ordinary observation in many quarters, give evidence of a more liberal—or perhaps more indifferent—outlook on race among white Southerners who came of age during and after the Second World War than among their parents.

3. The Old Reconstruction tended to widen instead of close the sectional breach that had opened within the great national church organizations in the ante-bellum struggle over slavery. The opposite result has been achieved by the present movement for Negro rights. Virtually all of the major national churches, supported by their Southern branches, have in some degree come out against the segregation system.

4. In the current discouragement over the stalemate in public school desegregation, there is a tendency to overlook the notable permanent achievements which may in the end outlast anything accomplished by the highly perishable works of the Old Reconstruction. As of last March, for example, 104 of the 208 formerly all-white, publicly supported colleges and universities in the South had opened their doors at some level to Negroes. At present only four states are holding out against admission. The excitement over the flare-up of violence at the University of Alabama has obscured the fact that this was the only instance of such violence that has occurred on a Southern campus over the admission of a Negro student.

5. Negroes played important roles in both Reconstruction periods, but in the current movement they are vastly better equipped to defend themselves and advance their cause than were their newly emancipated grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They have already shown new capacities for leadership that have surprised their friends as well as their opponents. In the long run, it may be that their own resources will prove decisive in the contest.

All these tendencies point to the eventual doom of segregation in American life and the triumph of the New Reconstruction—in the long run. But the “long run” implies “gradualism,” and “gradualism” is a word that has acquired almost as many evil associations as “appeasement.” Impatience with that word among people who have waited nearly a hundred years for promised rights is understandable. I use the word here not to propose or define policy, but to characterize a historic phenomenon. Undesirable or not, gradualism is an inescapable fact and a basic characteristic of the New Reconstruction.

Professor Paul A. Freund of the Harvard Law School has pointed out that the Supreme Court’s phrase, “deliberate speed,” is derived from 18th-century chancery practice. It was not inspired, as some would seem to think, by the haunting line from Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven: “Deliberate speed, majestic instancy.” Those who prefer the more heroic and poetic construction of the court’s ruling would do well to ponder the unhappy history of “majestic instancy” in the First Reconstruction. However deliberate and halting its speed, the New Reconstruction would seem to promise more enduring results.


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