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‘Keep On Keeping On’ explores Virginia’s role in nation’s fight to desegregate public schools

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A new book by a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor explores how African-Americans and the NAACP in Virginia successfully fought to implement Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared segregated public schools to be unconstitutional, in the face of tough opposition from segregationists.

Brian Daugherity, Ph.D.
Brian Daugherity, Ph.D.

Keep On Keeping On: The NAACP and the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia” (The University of Virginia Press), by Brian Daugherity, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is one of the first books to offer a comprehensive view of African-Americans’ efforts to obtain racial equality in Virginia in the later 20th century. The book sheds new light on both the civil rights movement and white resistance to civil rights in Virginia and the South.

Daugherity recently discussed his new book, which he says he hopes helps people understand the progress that has been made in Virginia toward racial justice, but also the significant amount of work that remains to be done. 

 

How critical was Virginia’s role in the national struggle to implement Brown v. Board of Education?

Virginia’s role in the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education was tremendous. First of all, Virginia was home to the largest NAACP state conference in the South, and Virginia NAACP’s legal staff included prominent attorneys, including Oliver W. Hill and Spottswood Robinson, with strong ties to the head of the national NAACP’s legal team, Thurgood Marshall. So, the Virginia NAACP was a key unit in the national NAACP’s efforts to overturn segregation in education. As a result, the state was not only one of the defendants in the original Brown v. Board of Education decision, but Virginia was also the site of several other important federal court decisions related to school desegregation, including Green v. New Kent County — another extremely important, but less well-known case.

At the same time, Virginia was also important in the struggle to implement Brown v. Board of Education because of how vigorously the state fought against the Brown decision. After the decision was handed down, the vast majority of Virginia’s political leaders denounced Brown v. Board of Education, and the state’s political elite waged an intense, prolonged effort to prevent it from being put into effect in the state. This opposition was often referred to as “massive resistance,” and Virginia used its opposition as a rallying cry to successfully inspire similar opposition among each of the Southern states. In order to implement Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia, the NAACP first had to successfully defeat massive resistance.

 

The book sheds new light on the civil rights movement and white resistance to civil rights in Virginia and the South. What were some of the revelations your research uncovered?

One of the points that I kept coming back to as I researched “Keep On Keeping On” was how much the NAACP in Virginia impacted the struggle over segregation in education in the state. Most previous histories portrayed the state’s African-American population, and its leading civil rights groups, as overwhelmed by the state government’s opposition to desegregation. On the other hand, my research suggests that the state government was regularly forced to adjust its plans, and in the end forced to abandon its commitment to segregation, because of the effectiveness of Virginia’s civil rights leaders. I believe that telling their story helps us to more fully understand this important era.

 

How did Virginia’s experience implementing Brown v Board of Education compare to other states?

Many of the Southern states looked to Virginia for leadership on the school desegregation issue.

Many of the Southern states looked to Virginia for leadership on the school desegregation issue. As the former capital of the Confederacy, and historically one of the most prominent Southern states, Virginia’s stance and decisions with regard to Brown v. Board of Education had a significant impact. So, when most of Virginia’s political leaders rallied to resist Brown v. Board of Education, it fueled similar resistance in other Southern states.

In the end, Virginia experienced its first public school desegregation in early 1959, nearly five years after the Brown decision. North Carolina, which was more moderate than Virginia at that time, had experienced initial desegregation in 1957. However, many other states that had been part of the former Confederacy did not experience any school desegregation until after Virginia. I think Virginia’s forced compliance with Brown in 1959, in a sense, was a turning point, as it signaled that all-out resistance was no longer a truly viable option. 

 

Who were the key figures who emerged in Virginia in both resisting and implementing this landmark court decision?

Many of the key figures that I write about promoted the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia. My focus is on the leaders of the Virginia NAACP, including figures such as Dr. J. M. Tinsley and W. Lester Banks, as well as the Virginia NAACP’s legal team, which included Oliver W. Hill, Spottswood Robinson, S. W. Tucker, Henry L. Marsh III, and a number of other dedicated individuals who are discussed in more detail in the book.

On the opposing side was much of Virginia’s political establishment, led by U.S. senator and former governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. and his lieutenants. Byrd was a key figure behind massive resistance. Also in the opposition category were Virginia’s other congressmen, Governor J. Lindsay Almond, future governor Mills Godwin, and a host of other prominent officials. Their story is included in “Keep On Keeping On,” although my focus is on the proponents of school desegregation in Virginia.

 

Why do you think it’s important today to understand the fight in Virginia to implement Brown v. Board of Education? 

I think it’s important to understand this story for a variety of reasons.

One, Virginia was a crucial state in the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, and I think the story of school desegregation in Virginia will shed light on the school desegregation process more broadly.

Second, I hope this book will revise how people have viewed the struggle over Brown v. Board of Education. Much of the existing scholarship focuses on those who resisted school desegregation, particularly state officials, and what that resistance entailed. I believe that examining the story of those who were on the other side will shed new light on the process, including how much influence they in fact had on school desegregation in Virginia.

Finally, as a Virginian, I believe it’s important to understand the history of the state in order to understand Virginia in the present day. I hope this book will help fellow Virginians to understand not only the progress that has been made in the movement toward racial justice, but also the significant work that remains to be done. 

 

What sort of research went into the writing of this book? What sources proved especially valuable?

My research for this book included a variety of sources of information. One source that was particularly useful was interviews that I conducted with civil rights leaders from the era, including the late Oliver W. Hill and several others. Such conversations shed light on the story in a way that books and archival materials could not. However, firsthand accounts always need to be complemented by other sources, and for me, the papers of the NAACP collection [known as “The NAACP Records”] at the Library of Congress was particularly valuable. This enormous collection taught me not only about the organization, and its tactics and goals, but also about its supporters on the local level throughout the South — including Virginia. The NAACP records shed light on countless unsung heroes and heroines of the civil rights era in Virginia. In addition, I read years of reporting from a variety of Virginia newspaper to help fill out the story.

 

How does this book fit into your larger body of scholarship?

I consider myself a historian of both the civil rights movement and also of Virginia, and this book combines those two areas of interest. My first book, “With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education,” edited with Charles Bolton, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, examined the NAACP and the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in a variety of locations all over the nation. “Keep On Keeping On” builds upon that work by focusing on the NAACP and the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia. Much of my other scholarship, including journal articles, encyclopedia entries and book reviews, also examines the civil rights era in Virginia.