My Biggest Story: They Raised the Confederate Flag and Called It Peaceful Resistance

By William B. Mead

In 1958 I got my first job, with United Press International in Richmond, Virginia, and stumbled into a running story that came to be the highlight of my career.

Under the leadership of U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr.,  the state of Virginia had adopted a policy of “Massive Resistance” to school integration, which had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. The Virginia General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a series of obstructionist laws. The most important one:  Whenever a federal court ordered a white public school to accept a black child, that school was immediately closed.

On September 15, 1958, Governor J. Lindsay Almond—“white-maned son of a railroad engineer” as we described him in the newspaper style of the day—proudly and loudly closed Warren County High School in Front Royal, Virginia, quickly followed by a high school and elementary school in Charlottesville. Then all the high schools in Norfolk, the state’s biggest city, were closed.

Virginia portrayed itself as an exemplar of peaceful resistance founded on legal principle. Governor Almond railed against  “a federal judicial oligarchy.”  With a jab at Little Rock, where federal troops led black children into a white school, Almond proclaimed: “If federal troops are sent to Virginia they will patrol empty schoolhouses. There will be no enforced integration in Virginia.”

Almond, a Southern orator of the old school, orated and orated, whipping up enough sweat to stain the red bandana he would whip out to wipe away the perspiration. He took no prisoners. “We will oppose with every facility at our command, and with every ounce of our energy, the attempt being made to mix the white and Negro races in our classrooms. Let there be no misunderstanding, no weasel words, on this point.  We dedicate our every capacity to preserve segregation in the schools.”

For the press: Wow!  Story after story!  One day Almond got so fired up he ordered the U.S. flag lowered from the state capitol and replaced by the stars and bars of the old Confederacy, with the Virginia flag in primary position.  A bulletin on the wire!  And what a picture! Thank you, Governor!

Virginia was not alone.  The South was almost as full of itself as it had been in 1860.  James Jackson Kilpatrick, firebrand editor of the Richmond News-Leader, provided the editorial cover.  INTERPOSITION NOW, proclaimed Kilpatrick’s editorial page, arguing that a state could interpose its own authority between its people and the federal government. That echoed Southern proclamations of the 1850s.
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One day I was dispatched to cover a session of the  Virginia General Assembly—an assignment beyond my skills or experience. H.L. Stevenson, my boss, knew it would be an easy session to cover because it was Robert E. Lee’s birthday. The assembled senators and delegates were so overcome with memory of the great man they could hardly speak. They wept, wept some more, and adjourned in his honor.

The General Assembly was made up of a lot of white men and two or three white women. No blacks. There were three or four Republicans—I may be exaggerating their strength. The rest were Democrats, almost all faithful soldiers of Harry Byrd’s political machine. The state’s rural Southside was grotesquely overrepresented, while urban areas of Richmond, Norfolk, and northern Virginia were underrepresented.  The federal judicial oligarchy had not yet mandated “one man, one vote” representation.

The General Assembly was not hard to cover. Press tables were right on the floor of the House of Delegates and the Senate. Most members were very accessible. In the Senate a reporter could kneel at the desk of a senator and talk to him while Senate business continued. During breaks you could get a ham sandwich at a food stand in the Capitol lobby run by “Birdie,” a friendly woman who may have dated back to the Confederacy. Everything else did.

You might think the politicians who voted to close public schools were radical outliers, sort of like the Tea Party bloc in today’s U.S. House of Representatives. You would be wrong. In 1958 in Virginia support for “massive resistance” seemed virtually unanimous. One day a woman delegate from Arlington expressed a slightly contrary view and was called out by a blustery colleague.  “She is an integrationist and has said so on the floor of this House!” he shouted.  The assembled delegates booed her to tears.

Kilpatrick, the Richmond News-Leader editor, set the tone for the Virginia press.  The morning newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was edited by Virginius Dabney, a Virginia gentleman who had editorialized against the Ku Klux Klan and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for editorials opposing the poll tax, a Southern ploy to discourage blacks from voting. But he didn’t editorialize against closing of the schools, either because he supported “massive resistance” or, more likely, because the newspaper’s owners, the Bryan family, wouldn’t let him.

Reporters are trained to seek a contrary view in pursuit of balanced coverage but within the Virginia political establishment, there was no place to turn.  So we talked to Oliver Hill, a Richmond lawyer for the NAACP who successfully argued lots of school integration cases before federal courts.  Hill was gracious, pleasant and informative.  So was the Virginia attorney general, Albertis S. Harrison, a Byrd ally who later was elected governor.  From opposite ends of the spectrum, Hill and Harrison patiently tried to educate this young reporter.

As hard as the wire service reporters worked, we often got beat.  The governor’s mansion in Richmond is a short walk from the state capitol.  Jim Latimer, ace political reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, often took position outside the governor’s office in late afternoon and accompanied Governor Almond on his walk home.  Latimer was likeable and possessed a precious reportorial skill. He could ask tough, probing questions while smiling and talking softly. Almond couldn’t keep his mouth shut and the Times-Dispatch, day after day, scooped the rest of us with the Governor’s latest salvo.
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For journalists, these were simpler times.  At federal court hearings, reporters usually sat in the jury box—these were trials by judge, not jury—and we often were invited into the judge’s chambers for informal press conferences. These were landmark legal events in civil rights history, but press coverage usually consisted of a half-dozen or so reporters, all from newspapers and news services, but not television.

That’s why you may have heard so much more about Little Rock, Selma, lunch counter sit-ins and civil rights marches than about Virginia’s school integration story. Little Rock and Selma made for great television. The Virginia story was no less important but took place in the General Assembly, the governor’s office, and courtrooms. TV cameras were barred in most of those venues. The best a television reporter could get was an interview—just a talking head, no action.

But for a print reporter, it sure seemed interesting, and sometimes fun. One evening in Harrisonburg, home of one of Virginia’s busy federal courts, visiting reporters drank a few beers and, driving down a main street, spotted a reporter from the New York Herald Tribune. “Yankee go home!” we shouted in glee at the startled pedestrian. We were gone before he could recognize us and his story the next morning noted that a reporter from New York was greeted by resentful natives with shouts of  “Yankee go home!”

Working for UPI, our objective was to beat the AP by getting an important story on the wire first, and, we hoped, to write a better story. I learned to dictate a clear story—straight news, no fancy touches, and certainly no computers. News was transmitted by teletype at the breathtaking speed of 65 words a minute. It was all upper case. Our bureau manager, H.L. Stevenson, or whoever else was working the news desk in our understaffed bureau in Richmond, often would take dictation right on the teletype machine. Here’s what you might have seen if you were the wire editor at any of the hundreds of newspapers subscribing to UPI.

Your UPI teletype machine would ring five bells to get your attention: Here comes a big story.

BULLETIN

NORFOLK, VA. SEPT. 3 (UPI)—A FEDERAL JUDGE TODAY ORDERED NORFOLK TO REOPEN AND INTEGRATE SIX HIGH  SCHOOLS THAT HAVE BEEN CLOSED FOR A YEAR UNDER VIRGINIA’S “MASSIVE RESISTANCE” LAWS.

The story would proceed, quoting the judge and providing background, the way news stories do.

I almost had a scoop on the Norfolk story.  After a day of arguments, pitting the NAACP’S Oliver Hill against Attorney General Harrison—who had entertained reporters in his hotel suite the evening before–the court was sure to order the reopening and integration of the schools. Supreme Court decisions, from 1954 on, had laid down the rules and outlawed “evasive schemes” like “massive resistance.”  Federal district judges had  to follow the Supreme Court’s rulings. Anyone could have played the judge’s role without difficulty. But the Norfolk judge, Walter E. Hoffman, adjourned for the day, promising to hand down his ruling the following afternoon; he needed time to write it and he didn’t want to spill the beans beforehand.  Protocol.

I wondered how the city would respond.  Acquiesence?  Delay?  More resistance?  The morning was free so I sought out Mayor W. Fred Duckworth, who had been nowhere in sight during the court hearing, and no wonder:  He had a Ford dealership to run.  Being mayor was part-time work.

I walked through the showroom, past shiny new 1959 Fords, knocked on the open door of Duckworth’s office, and accepted his invitation to sit down. He didn’t know me and may have thought I was there to haggle price on a new car.  I introduced myself and asked him what he would do if the court ordered the schools to open and integrate.  Donno, he replied.  Haven’t thought much about it.  Think the court might really do that?  Anyway, what’s the rush?

I was 23-years-old with only a year of experience, but I played the big-shot role as representative of UPI, a worldwide news service. Mr. Mayor, I said, we have hundreds of newspapers and all the broadcast networks eager for this story. Do you want the UPI story to say that the mayor hadn’t given the issue much thought?

Oh no, he replied.  Why don’t you drop by after the court rules and I’ll have something to say. Yes sir, I said, planning to do exactly that and dreaming of a UPI scoop—the mayor tells the world how Norfolk will respond!

But Mayor Duckworth was no fool.  The court ruled as expected, and a city hall flunky intercepted the stampeding reporters—we had to get to phones to dictate our stories—with a written statement from the mayor, pledging to obey the court’s ruling.  And he did. After the usual appeals, 17 black students peacefully enrolled in Norfolk’s white public high schools.
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For reporters covering the Virginia General Assembly, a favorite source was State Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., faithful son of the U.S. Senator and a future U.S. senator himself. The Byrds owned the daily newspaper in Winchester, Virginia, not far from their apple farm in Berryville. Harry Jr. was a friendly man who expressed kinship with reporters. He was also one of two leaders of a bloc that refused to surrender even after the U.S and Virginia supreme courts struck down the “massive resistance” laws on January 19, 1959.  His pal was State Senator Mills Godwin of Suffolk, Virginia, who went on to serve two terms as Virginia governor.

Governor Almond was defiant, and flowerly so. “To those who would overthrow the customs, morals and traditions of a way of life which has endured in honor and decency for centuries and embrace a new moral code prepared by nine men in Washington whose moral concepts they know nothing about…to all of these and their confederates, comrades and allies, let me make it abundantly clear for the record now and hereafter, as governor of this state, I will not yield to that which I know to be wrong and will destroy every semblance of education for thousands of the children of Virginia.”

This man was quotable.

The senior Senator Byrd praised Almond, but not for long. Just a week after his declaration of defiance, the governor caved. He addressed, and shocked, the General Assembly. “The police power cannot be used to thwart or override the decrees of a court of competent jurisdiction, whether it be state or federal.” He proposed that the state surrender its school-closing authority in favor of a local option plan, which would allow a locality to decide for itself whether to integrate public schools or close them.

The Old Guard erupted. Heresy!  In a private meeting, the senior Senator Byrd advised Almond to go to prison, if necessary, to keep blacks out of white schools.  Almond declined.  “I am being reviled from many sources” he wrote to a Richmond educator, “but I had no alternative than to tell the truth to the people.”

State Senators Byrd and Godwin promoted an alternative plan, reasoning that if it violated equal rights under the Constitution to close one school (because it was under court order to integrate) while leaving other Virginia schools open, why not close all the state’s public schools?

Virginia’s business community, long fed up with Massive Resistance, blew its stack.  But the Byrd-Godwin proposal enlisted many followers. Finally, in its Appomattox moment, the General Assembly approved Almond’s plan, rejecting the draconian alternative by just a few votes.

One locality, Prince Edward County in Virginia’s southside, exercised its local option and closed its public schools for five years, earning a notorious note in history. The rest of Virginia desegregated its schools, grudgingly and gradually.

Governor Almond completed his term and angled for a federal district judgeship. He was a Democrat, as was the president, John F. Kennedy. He had served as Virginia attorney general and then governor. He was eminently qualified. But an unwritten rule allowed a senator from a candidate’s state to block any such nomination.  Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. denied Almond the judgeship he sought. Too soft on segregation.
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William B. Mead is a veteran Washington journalist and author. His latest work is the e-book Come Back Moo, a biography of his remarkable grandfather. After working in UPI’s Richmond bureau, he also covered civil rights in Detroit, where he was one of the first reporters on the street when the riot of 1967 broke out, and in Washington, where he helped cover the 1968 riots that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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