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21 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:19pm

From the NS archive: Disunited States

11 February 1956: Public opinion following the ban of racial segregation in American schools.

By Douglas Jay

In 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld a ruling banning racial segregation in American schools. When Douglas Jay travelled through the Southern states he found widespread resistance to the judgement. Indeed, he said, “It is painfully clear that the whites in the South do not accept the result of the civil war, and are still bitterly fighting it by the method of passive resistance.” The result, he reported, was that some states were trying to find workarounds to avoid fulfilling the spirit of the law and maintain some form of racial segregation. At best, equality meant “equal but separate”. His report for the magazine, written using the racial terminology of the time, examines the feelings of those on both sides of the issue.


Travelling in the American South this winter (only a year or so after visiting Brazil, where the colour problem has been completely solved), I was left with the feeling that colour prejudice is the worst political defect of the English-speaking peoples. Go from Latin America to the United States and you will be inclined to agree with Professor Toynbee that “though in certain other respects the triumph of the English-speaking peoples has been a blessing to mankind, in this perilous matter of race feeling, it can hardly be denied that it is a misfortune.”

Voters in the state of Virginia (and that means largely white voters, since so many Negroes have been effectively disfranchised) have again forced this issue to the front by deciding in the recent referendum in favour of state grants for private “segregated” schools. This, if really carried out, would frustrate the Supreme Court’s historic ruling of May 1954 that coloured children must not be segregated into separate schools supported by public money.

We shall probably not hear much of this issue in the coming presidential election campaign, since it is too delicate and explosive for either political party. Yet, of all political and social issues, “segregation” seems to dominate people’s thoughts and conversation in the south-eastern fifth of the United States – Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana; and in a lesser degree West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and Texas. In most of these states, until the Supreme Court’s 1954 judgment, there had still been virtually complete segregation of colours not merely in schools but in churches, universities and other public premises.

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I spent an evening in Atlanta, Georgia, at the annual supper of an all-Negro school of 15-17-year-old boys and girls. No other white was there; and after supper the students were addressed by their schoolmaster and by the Negro editor of a successful Atlanta daily paper with an all-coloured staff. The speeches and conversation were all concerned with the Negro’s fight for the full application of the Supreme Court’s verdict; and the young people were strongly advised by the chief speaker that, because the cause of nondiscrimination was gradually winning, thanks to the Supreme Court, they should avoid bitterness or violence and stick scrupulously to legal and constitutional methods. Inch by inch, this coloured journalist said, and week by week, the coloured people were gaining ground, though the struggle would be long and hard.

Then the schoolchildren began to question me: What did the English think about segregation? Was there discrimination in England? How were West Indian immigrants treated in London? I replied that, despite a lot of local difficulties (especially housing), public opinion in England ran strongly against colour discrimination. At this, they inquired how, in that case, I could account for events in South Africa – which they thought was still part of England. I tried to convince them that South Africa is not now ruled from London; and asked in turn whether it was true (as many intelligent whites say) that Negroes really prefer “segregation”, and do not want trouble stirred up. What did they want? “Equality”,’ they answered very straightforwardly: “No discrimination.” This showed all too plainly how profound is the cleavage still dividing the two nations within the southern states – and dividing the South on the one hand from the north and the west of the U.S., where de-segregation is supported wholeheartedly, on the other. A “conservative” old-style Democratic congressman in New Orleans told me that the Supreme Court’s decision was a “gross interference by northern states like Maine and Vermont” in the affairs of the South; and that the Supreme Court was exceeding its powers and trying to legislate instead of interpreting. I thought it would be impertinent for a foreigner to say that one supposed that this issue had been decided by the civil war. It is painfully clear that the whites in the South do not accept the result of the civil war, and are still bitterly fighting it by the method of passive resistance. The governor of Georgia recently described the Supreme Court’s decision as “treacherous” in a public speech; and the state Attorney General has formally stated that segregation is in force in Georgia in spite of it. Another sign of defiance is the recent meeting in Richmond, Virginia, of five governors from the South, who planned their campaign to resist de-segregation.

It is certainly true that the present Court has made a sharp change in its interpretation of the famous 14th amendment, which laid down that all persons must have “equal” protection by the law. But, in insisting that “equal” means “ equal”, the Court is only rejecting the judgment of 1896, which ruled that “equal” meant “equal but separate”.  For physical as well as political reasons, segregation cannot be abolished at once, and the Court has given the objecting states a chance to delay the process by insisting only that they should make some genuine moves towards equality. Its judgment, however, does give Negroes a chance to challenge in the courts any state school or college which excludes them, and all over the South cases of this kind are being brought.

The struggle is being led, or at least guided, on the Negro side by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which carries out propaganda and fights legal battles. It is accused from time to time, naturally, of being Communist; but, in fact, the great majority of coloured people have wisely kept clear of the Communists. “Bad enough being black,”’ one said to me, “without being red as well.”  Extremists among the whites have been organising “citizens councils” throughout the South, which are publicly pressing employers to deprive any Negro of his job if he openly supports the Supreme Court on de-segregation. In the worst cases, some have lost their jobs. But isolated efforts to revive the Klan have failed, All in all, as a result of this protracted struggle, bigger breaches have now been made in the iron curtain of segregation than seems to have been realised in Britain. The rate of advance varies from state to state; but today there are many thousands of coloured children and students in schools and universities which admitted none in 1954.

In Maryland, more than 1,000 coloured pupils this winter entered formerly all-white schools in eight of the state’s 23 counties. White parents tried to obstruct at first, but soon gave up. (Baltimore de-segregated over a year ago.) In West Virginia discrimination has been almost completely abolished this winter, without the predicted friction and disorders. In areas further north and west like Missouri (85 per cent de-segregated), Oklahoma, Kentucky and Delaware, the advance towards de-segregation has moved fairly fast. Progress has been rather slower, but still real, in Tennessee and Texas. In Dallas, Texas, a judge has ruled that the city “must do away with segregation after having worked out a proper plan”. Meanwhile, in the city of Washington itself, segregation – which lingered on in various forms right up to 1950 – has almost completely vanished; and 80 per cent. of the public schools have coloured children nearly half of the teachers are also coloured. The struggle has taken on a legal form in Arkansas, where at least one local school board (at Hoxie) has decided to go ahead with de-segregation, side with the Supreme Court, and defy its own state authorities. In North Carolina, the state university has opened its doors to Negroes this winter for the first time; and in Florida the first “integrated” classes have appeared in a few schools.

But in the “last-ditch” states of South Carolina (where the Negroes have been pouring in petitions to the legislature, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana), the plan for delay now devised by Virginia is likely to be copied. By this plan the state government would take power to spend public money to pay fees at private schools, so that white parents objecting to de- segregation could still send their children to non-segregated schools at the public expense. Instead, wholly public schools (which would have to be de- segregated) might become rare. Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia are playing with the idea of abolishing them altogether. Under the second part of the Virginian plan, local school boards would have the power to “assign” individual children to a given school – nominally on grounds other than colour.

By either of these devices, the Supreme Court’s ruling could be – at least temporarily – evaded. They are, therefore, a direct and deliberate challenge to the U.S. constitution. If the last-ditchers in the South insist on obstinately pushing this plan forward, they can delay the coming of de-segregation in their states, and do a good deal of damage to the schools. But the plan itself can, of course, and will, be challenged in the Supreme Court, and – almost certainly – found contrary to the 14th amendment. And even if this further round in the struggle takes time, possibly some years, the anti-segregation forces from the north and west are closing in on the South, and are almost certain to prove irresistible in the end.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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