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Lessons of Massive Resistance

Louis Cousins in Maury High School

An Associated Press photograph of Louis Cousins, Maury High School. Click image to enlarge.


“Massive resistance” is a term that was coined by Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. to describe a plan of organized opposition to school desegregation. Byrd and many conservative Dixiecrats disagreed with U.S. Supreme Court’s celebrated 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which invalidated the long-held principle of “separate, but equal” as established in 1896 under Plessy v. Ferguson.

In the wake of Brown’s mandate for racial integration of America’s public schools, Byrd and his supporters began to design a concerted program of state and local laws to block its implementation and close any Virginia public school that agreed to accept students of any race.

In late 1958, Virginia Gov. J. Lindsay Almond chose to engage in the ultimate act of “massive resistance” against court-mandated racial integration of public education. On September 27, he closed six all-white Norfolk junior high and high schools rather than submit to desegregation. By executive order, nearly 10,000 Norfolk schoolchildren were locked out of their schools, while questions of equal opportunity, parental rights, judicial legislation, and racial discrimination resonated through society and the media. The city found itself embroiled in a full-fledged legal, political, and cultural war with national implications.

After a series of lawsuits, concerted student and citizen action, and a nationally aired CBS News report by Edward R. Murrow on “The Lost Class of ’59,” the schools reopened. On February 2, 1959, “The Norfolk Seventeen,” the small number of African-American students approved for transfer, broke through the color barrier and reported for classes at formerly segregated city schools, along with most of their white peers whose education had been interrupted for more than four months.

In this multimedia exhibition, the Chrysler Museum of Art joined s a city-wide commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the end of state-organized opposition to desegregation. The Lessons of Massive Resistance chronicled the city’s struggles and triumphs through a timeline of documents, photographs, media clippings, TV broadcasts, and first-hand accounts from key participants in the struggle for integration.