More than two years ago, headlines in the United States and around the world proclaimed the end of second class citizenship for Negroes. The Supreme Court had decided unanimously on May 17, 1954, that school racial segregation laws were unconstitutional. But for the first year, not much happened.
The undercurrents of southern opposition to the Court opinion remained undercurrents. Every one knew integration would take time, but no one outside of the South ever doubted that it would eventually be effected. Many realized there would be problems, but these, people felt sure, could be ironed out within a short period of time.
Access to Education?
A statement in the CRIMSON typified the feeling in most of the world outside of the South: "Now, finally, the Supreme Court's decision outlawing segregation will eliminate this whole problem [of second-rate citizenship] at one stroke. It will give the Southern Negro access to the education without which he can never hope to achieve equal status."
But the South, and especially the deep South of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, was not considered when all the wonderfully optimistic statements were made. As a result of activities over the past year, however, all this has changed. Now the South must be considered. It has organized its forces. White and Negro leaders talk mainly about principles now, and the practical moderate has been cowed into silence.
The Declaration of Principles
The Miss Lucy affair at Tuscaloosa, Mississippi's Till murder case, and the Montgomery bus boycott all illustrate the pent-up emotion in the South which comes to the surface periodically. Similarly, the March Declaration of Constitutional Principles issued by 19 Senators and 77 Representatives, all from the South, illustrates the new determination and the new organization of the whites: "we regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases as clear abuse of judicial power... This unwarranted exercise of power by the court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the states primarily affected..."
It has become a battle of principles which few foresaw two years ago. Both sides are trying to solve a complex problem by sweeping generalizations. The Negro as a person and the varying local situations are no longer considered in rational terms by most southerners, regardless of their color. They have become secondary considerations, to be ironed out after general policy is decided.
Importance of Local Level
Two years ago Harry S. Ashmore prophetically stated in his book The Negro and the Schools: "It is here (at the local level) that the South will have to determine the future of its educational system. Wise leadership at the upper levels can help, and emotional excursions by the leaders of either race can do great harm. But in the end the new patterns will have to be hammered out across the table in thousands of scattered school districts, and they will have to be shaped to accommodate not only the needs but the prejudices of whites and Negroes to whom these problems are not abstractions but the essence of their daily lives."
It is unfortunate that in many areas of the deep South the problem is not being worked out in these terms. Rather, advisory committees on education, like those in North and South Carolina, are established by the white leaders to plan overall strategy for the entire State's school system. Similarly, leaders in most southern states seriously think they can placate the Negro by building big, shiny new segregated schools. In some districts, it may work. But according to one NAACP official in Nashville, who also likes to make generalizations, "No Negro will ever be satisfied with a segregated school, no matter how good it is."
Negro More Moderate
Although both sides stand firmly by their principles, it appears that the Negro, or integration, side is more moderate, and more willing to make some sort of a compromise arrangement than the whites. The leaders of the segregation movement refuse to listen to reason; instead of encouraging moderation they oppose it, even when it seems to be the prevailing sentiment in a given area. At the University of Tennessee, for instance, a group of students requested the administration for premission to form an NAACP chapter; their petition was refused.
Similarly at the University of North Carolina, the administration was forced to accept three Negro undergraduates for admission last September by court order. Expecting the same reaction from students to this as it felt, the administration tried everything to treat the Negroes as a special case. They even tried segregating them in a special section at the football stadium.
It was only through student pressure that the University was forced to accept the realities of the situation. Subsequently, on February 8 of this year an Associated Press reporter could state: "Three negro undergraduates have been absorbed in the 6,500-member student body at the University of North Carolina--with no more violent reaction than raised eyebrows."