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Integration: Revisiting the Ghosts of '57

by Kyle Taylor
Register & Bee, September 2, 2007

DANVILLE - The upcoming 50th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock, Ark.'s Central High School will undoubtedly resurrect many unflattering memories of America's past.

Nine black students, who have come to be known as the "Little Rock Nine," made headlines across the nation. The fact that the Arkansas National Guard was deployed by the state's governor to prevent the students from entering the school on opening day, Sept. 4, 1957, brought the already tense race relations in the country to a boil. Both segregationists and integrationists spoke openly on the matter, each blaming each other for the ruckus in Little Rock.

Everyone from high-ranking officials to the guy next door had an opinion on the matter, and people in Southside Virginia were no different.

The precursor to the Central High brouhaha was the Supreme Court's historical ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Anyone with knowledge of Southside Virginia's history would know that the declaration of segregated schools to be unconstitutional would not go over well here.

Judge William Old of the 37th Circuit Court in Chesterfield County gave his two cents on the ruling on the evening of Aug. 30, 1957, in Chatham. Speaking to members of the Pittsylvania County Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, Old urged for the state to uphold its separation of races in school.

"We must stand by our guns," Old was quoted as saying in the Danville Bee. "Once you give up your high Constitutional principles, you have burned your bridges behind you. The people that are fleeing the nation's capital because of the stench from the quagmire created there in their public schools will see it."

Old played to the beliefs of his listeners. During the meeting, a telegram was proposed to be sent to Sens. Harry F. Byrd and Absalom W. Robertson, both of whom condemned the Supreme Court ruling. The telegram urged both senators to use every effort to support South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's stand on the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Thurmond supported racial segregation and was infamous for delivering the longest filibuster ever - an unsuccessful 24-hour-and-18-minute rant that attempted to derail the act.

Old also saw the court's decision as an "illegal encroachment of the powers of the states," a viewpoint that both Danville newspapers agreed with. The Central High School situation dominated the headlines for nearly two months, and neither paper shied away from offering opinions on the matter.

In the Sept. 2 edition of the Danville Bee, the paper reiterated that under Virginia law, if any school were to be integrated, it would be closed and could only open under directive of the governor. The paper expressed pity for parents who would not be able to send their children to school and would be forced to "follow the bad example of the Democratic leaders in Congress in the case of the Civil Rights Bill."

Referring to Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus as a "preservator of the peace in Arkansas" due to his stance against President Eisenhower's integration of Central High School, the Danville Register argued that the situation transcended the matter of integration versus separation.

"Here is a situation wherein state authority and power can be overridden by federal power," the paper said in its Sept. 5 edition. "But to do so in this instance would mean the practical elimination of the 48 state governments because it would reduce them into impotent bodies politic and leave the United States a federal state ready for a judicial dictatorship."

One minister even went so far as to call integration evil.

Five days after Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce integration and removed the Arkansas National Guard from Faubus' control, R.J. Barber, pastor of East Thomas Street Tabernacle, preached a sermon titled "White Supremacy - Negro Inferiority or Social Equality - Which?" on Sunday, Sept. 29, 1957. In his message, Barber claimed that "God was the originator of segregation," and that "integration is contrary to the will of our Great Maker."

Barber used the curse of Ham theory to support his claim. Quoting Genesis 9:20-27 of the Bible, Barber claimed that Ham was cursed by his father, Noah, and the cursed caused his skin to turn black, thus making all his descendants have black skin. Interestingly enough, the biblical passage makes no reference to skin color or race.

Though Barber said that Adam's curse cursed all man and that he was "in favor of colored people having equal but separate rights and privileges," he was adamantly against them mingling with whites.

"Without segregation Negroes may teach white children and white men may become pastors of Negro churches, officers in Negro fraternal organizations and salaried employees of all-Negro clubs," he said.

Barber mentioned his sermon in a letter to Virginia Gov. Thomas B. Stanley, commending Stanley for his stand in opposing integration.

The integration movement had a definite impact on the Southside area.

The Sept. 4 edition of The Register reported more than 100 hecklers, consisting of a dozen teenagers and the rest adults, jeering five African-American students who attended Gillespie Elementary and Junior High School. The students' ages ranged between 10 and 16. The verbal abuse caused one of them, 10 year-old Brenda Florence, to break down in tears in her fifth-grade classroom.

The same edition of The Register reported Yanceyville, N.C., schools opening the following day with no plans of integrating.

Kyle Taylor
Integration: Revisiting the Ghosts of '57
Register & Bee, September 2, 2007

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