3.6.4 Old South (1920-1965): Reaction to Brown

All Deliberate Speed:  Reaction to Brown in the Old South

Constantian v. Anson County – North Carolina, 1956 (93 S.E.2d 163); Dobbins v. Commonwealth – Virginia, 1957 (96 S.E.2d 154); Harrison v. Day – Virginia, 1959 (106 S.E.2d 636)


  • Old South states reacted to Brown in different ways.  Delaware and Maryland complied with little protest, but Brown stirred up deep fear and anger and a “massive resistance” movement in Virginia, which effectively prevented any school integration for more than a decade.  Many Virginia counties closed their schools rather than integrate, and many Virginia whites removed their children from public schools to private segregated academies.  Virginia’s legislators joined  Deep South colleagues in passing an interposition resolution, and talk of active resistance to federal authority surfaced for the first time since the Civil War. 
  • North Carolina also resisted integration, but in a more low-key and pragmatic way.  Its lawmakers recognized that although North Carolina could not hold out against federal authority forever, American opinion was deeply divided over Brown and delay might give the state a chance to preserve segregation in some form.  Accordingly, North Carolina avoided open defiance of Brown but enacted a series of delaying measures which achieved their overriding goals of avoiding violence and minimizing federal intervention.
  • North Carolina’s supreme court expressed its state’s policy well in Constantian, one of the first cases in which a Southern state court had to address Brown directly.  The court noted that many Southern state constitutions, including North Carolina’s, prohibited school integration, and it suggested that perhaps the only way to comply with both Brown and state constitutions was to eliminate public education altogether.  After raising this specter, the court quickly discounted it and, after criticizing Brown, indicated that it would reluctantly comply.  Constantian thus gave a seal of judicial approval to delay and perhaps encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court to move more slowly in implementing Brown than it would otherwise have done. 
  • In Harrison, Virginia’s supreme court took its cue from Constantian and helped move the state from a posture of active defiance to more muted resistance.  Virginia’s constitution required the state to maintain an “efficient” public school system and in 1956, the legislature authorized a new system of “efficient” and nominally private segregated schools, intending to confine blacks to a now shrunken public school system.  Virginia’s supreme court held that the state could create a dual school system if it wished, but it also held – reluctantly - that both systems had to be adequately funded and   could not be segregated. Like their North Carolina colleagues, Virginia’s justices denounced Brown but stated they had no choice but to comply.  They held, over a vigorous dissent by two judges, that an integrated system was not necessarily an “inefficient” system under the state constitution, although integration might impair efficiency as a practical matter.     
  • In Dobbins, Virginia’s court made another effort to defuse the passions stirred up by Brown.  Prior to Brown, a rural county had refused to create a black high school and had instructed black pupils to go to a high school in a neighboring county.  One pupil’s parents refused on the ground that the proposed school was inferior to the county’s white high school; they were then convicted of violating the state’s compulsory school attendance law.  Virginia’s supreme court threw out the conviction, stating that “application of a criminal statute so that it brings about or results in inequality of treatment to the two races [was] not justified.”  The court thus acknowledged that it could not sanction an arrangement promoting segregation but at the same time it was not quite prepared to acknowledge that “separate but equal” was dead.  

“Virginia can remain silent no longer.  Recognizing … the prospect of incalculable harm to the public schools of this State and the disruption of the education of her children, Virginia is in duty bound to interpose against these most serious consequences, and earnestly to challenge the usurped authority that would inflict them upon her citizens … . [W]e pledge our firm intention to take all appropriate measures honorably, legally and constitutionally available to us, to resist this illegal encroachment upon our sovereign powers.” – Virginia Legislature (1956)



“Our deep conviction is that the interpretation now placed [by  Brown] on the 14th Amendment, in relation to the right of a state to determine whether children of different races are to be taught in the same or separate public schools, cannot be reconciled with the intent of the framers … However that may be, the Constitution of the United States takes precedence over the Constitution of North Carolina.” – Justice William Bobbitt, in Constantian


“[T]he State must support such public free schools in the State as are necessary to an efficient system, including those in which the pupils of both races are compelled to be enrolled and taught together, however unfortunate that situation may be … we deplore the lack of judicial restraint evinced by [the Brown Court] in trespassing on the sovereign rights of this Commonwealth reserved to it in the Constitution of the United States.  It was an understandable effort to diminish the evils expected from the decision in the Brown case that prompted the enactment of the statutes now under review.” –Justice John Eggleston, in Harrison