By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
“We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.
-The Southern Manifesto, Cong. Rec., 84th Cong. 2d Session, Vol. 102, part 4 (March 12, 1956)
‘This was an activist court that you saw today. Anytime the Supreme Court renders something constitutional that is clearly unconstitutional, that undermines the credibility of the Supreme Court. I do believe the court’s credibility was undermined severely today.”
-Michele Bachmann (R. Minn.), June 26 2012
Most people are familiar with the opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al., 349 U.S. 483 (1954), in which a unanimous Supreme Court summarily outlawed public school segregation by tersely declaring, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” 349 U.S. at 495. But many people do not know that Brown involved a consolidation of cases from four states. The “et al.” in the style refers to decisions on similar facts in Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia. And the response of Virginia to the ruling in Brown provides an interesting comparison with the actions leading to the current government shutdown.
In 1951 the population of Prince Edward County, Virginia was approximately 15,000, more than half of whom were African-American. The county maintained two high schools to accommodate 386 black students and 346 white students. Robert R. Moton High School lacked adequate science facilities and offered a more restricted curriculum than the high school reserved for white students. It had no gym, showers or dressing rooms, no cafeteria and no restrooms for teachers. Students at Moton High were even required to ride in older school buses.
Suit was filed in federal district court challenging the Virginia constitutional and statutory provisions mandating segregated public schools. Although the trial court agreed that the school board had failed to provide a substantially equal education for African-American students, it declined to invalidate the Virginia laws, concluding that segregation was not based “upon prejudice, on caprice, nor upon any other measureless foundation,” but reflected “ways of life in Virginia” which “has for generations been a part of the mores of the people.” Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 103 F. Supp. 337, 339 (E.D. Va. 1952). Instead, the court ordered the school board to proceed with the completion of existing plans to upgrade the curriculum, physical plant and buses at Moton High School. When the plaintiffs took an appeal from the decision, the Democratic machine that had for many years controlled Virginia politics under the firm hand of Sen. Harry Byrd had little reason to believe that “ways of life” that had prevailed since the end of the Reconstruction era would soon be declared illegal.
When the Brown decision was announced, the reaction in Virginia was shock, disbelief and anger. Reflecting the prevailing attitudes, the Richmond News Leader railed against “the encroachment of the Federal government, through judicial legislation, upon the reserved powers of the States.” The Virginia legislature adopted a resolution of “interposition” asserting its right to “interpose” between unconstitutional federal mandates and local authorities under principles of state sovereignty. And Sen. Byrd organized a campaign of opposition that came to be known as “Massive Resistance.”
In August of 1954 a commission was appointed to formulate a plan to preserve segregated schools. Late in 1955, it presented its recommendations, including eliminating mandatory school attendance, empowering local school boards to assign students to schools and creating special tuition grants to enable white students to attend private schools. Enabling legislation was quickly adopted and “segregation academies” began forming around the state. Subsequent legislation went even further by prohibiting state funding of schools that chose to integrate.
In March of 1956, 19 senators and 77 house members from 11 southern states signed what is popularly known as “The Southern Manifesto,” in which they declared, “Even though we constitute a minority in the present Congress, we have full faith that a majority of the American people believe in the dual system of government which has enabled us to achieve our greatness and will in time demand that the reserved rights of the States and of the people be made secure against judicial usurpation.”
Throughout this period the Prince Edward County schools remained segregated, but when various court rulings invalidated Virginia’s various attempts to avoid integration, the school board took its final stand. It refused to authorize funds to operate any schools in the district, and all public schools in the county were simply closed, and remained closed from 1959 to 1964.
There are striking similarities between Sen. Byrd’s failed plan of Massive Resistance and Republican efforts to prevent implementation of the Affordable Care Act. There was widespread confidence among conservatives that the Supreme Court would declare the Act unconstitutional. When that did not occur, legislators such as Michele Bachmann, quoted above, attempted to deny the legitimacy of the Court’s ruling. Brent Bozell went further, denouncing Chief Justice Roberts as “a traitor to his own philosophy,” hearkening back to the days when southern roadsides were replete with billboards demanding the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
The House of Representatives has taken over 40 votes to repeal the ACA, quixotic efforts pursued for reasons known only to John Boehner and his colleagues. And in accordance with the Virginia legislative model, the House has attempted to starve the ACA by eliminating it from funding bills. Following the failure of these efforts, Republicans have elected to pursue the path ultimately taken by the school board of Prince Edward County and have shut down the government.
Even the strategy followed by Republicans is largely a southern effort. Approximately 60% of the Tea Party Caucus is from the South. Nineteen of the 32 Republican members of the House who have been instrumental in orchestrating the shutdown are from southern states. It is hardly surprising therefore, that the current impasse is characterized by the time-honored southern belief in nullification theory as a proper antidote to disfavored decisions by a congressional majority.
In reflecting upon the experience of Virginia many years later, former Gov. Linwood Holton noted, “Massive resistance … served mostly to exacerbate emotions arrayed in a lost cause.” Republicans would do well to ponder the wisdom in that observation.