3.6.3 Old South (1920-1965): Holding the Racial Line

Virginia Digs In:  Buses

Davis v. Commonwealth – Virginia, 1944 (30 S.E.2d 700); New v. Atlantic Greyhound Corp. – Virginia, 1947 (43 S.E.2d 872); Naim v. Naim – Virginia, 1955 (87 S.E. 2d 749, 90 S.E.2d 849); Loving v. Commonwealth – Virginia, 1966 (147 S.E.2d 78), reversed, 388 U.S. 1 (1968)
  • Virginians had long cultivated a reputation for racial moderation, but after 1940, as the “equal means equal” campaign intensified and opposition to Plessy grew, Virginia’s supreme court took an increasingly vehement stand against change. 
  • In Davis, a black passenger boarded a bus and saw that the only empty seat was between two whites.  The bus driver told her to sit at the back even though there were no open seats there.  She objected and was arrested for violating a 1930 bus segregation law.  A divided Virginia supreme court overturned her conviction, but only because the driver had made no effort to get a white passenger to move to the front.   But soon after, in New, the court upheld the conviction of another black passenger who refused to take an empty seat at the back of the bus.

“[The defendant] placed her own construction upon such provisions, disregarded the instructions of the person in authority and declared her intention to remain where she was regardless of all consequences … [The majority says that] those in charge of such transportation must require a white passenger to move his seat before a Negro passenger is approached or asked to move to some other space in the coach or bus.  This is not ‘substantial equality of treatment.” – Justice Henry Holt (dissenting), in Davis

“The settled public policy of the State [is] to separate white and colored passengers, in promotion of the comfort of the traveling public, and in the ‘preservation of the public peace and good order.’” Justice Claude Spratley, in Atlantic Greyhound

Virginia Digs In:   Miscegenation

  • Encouraged by Perez v. Sharp (1948), in which the California supreme court invalidated  its state’s miscegenation law (§ __), civil rights activists challenged Virginia’s law.  They failed in Naim, but a decade later they scored a victory of national importance in Loving. 
  • In Naim, decided a year after Brown, Virginia’s supreme court attempted to limit Brown’s stricture against segregation to schools.  The court reasoned, somewhat wishfully, that the Supreme Court ruled as it did only because education was “the very foundation of good citizenship” and that Brown’s reasoning did not apply to marriage.  The Naim court attacked interracial marriage in unusually harsh terms, thus showing that segregation ran deep and would not easily be overcome even in the Old South.  The Supreme Court instructed Virginia’s court to investigate and further consider whether there was truly a distinction between segregation in marriage and segregation in schools, but Virginia’s justices responded by saying, in effect, that there was nothing to reconsider. 
  • Ten years later, in Loving, the Virginia court again upheld its state’s miscegenation law but did so in considerably more restrained terms than it had in Naim.  The court simply noted that while the Supreme Court might extend Brown to interracial marriage it had not yet done so, and that it was not prepared to make that change on its own.  In 1967, the Supreme Court responded by invalidating Virginia’s and all other states’ miscegenation laws.


A Greyhound bus trip from Louisville, Kentucky, to Memphis, Tennessee, and the terminals. Greyhound driver helping woman with her bag. From a nearby farm, she flagged the bus on the highway
Greyhound bus trip, 1940s - courtesy Library of Congress

“It is necessary to the validity of segregation statutes that there be no discrimination either in their terms or in their enforcement.  There must be ‘substantial equality of treatment’ as well as substantial equality of facilities furnished. … In effect, [the driver] undertook to enforce the statute against … a colored person, without at the same time enforcing it against a white person.  And this he had no right to do.” – Justice John Eggleston, in Davis

 Mildred and Richard Loving

“We are unable to read [in] the Fourteenth Amendment … [anything] which denies the power of the State to regulate the marriage relation so that it shall not have a mongrel breed of citizens.  We find there no requirement that the State shall not legislature to prevent the obliteration of racial pride, but must permit the corruption of blood even though it weaken or destroy the quality of its citizenship.” – Justice Archibald Buchanan, in Naim