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That ‘History We’re Doomed To Repeat?’ It’s Here.

Unruly mobs full of parents, guardians, and ideologically affiliated adults scream outside of schools. Legislators pass and executives affirm laws that diminish or make impossible diverse learning environments. And debates rage on—across the states and across the country—about whether there is an unarticulated natural right (some might call it “God-given”) to control a child’s education as an extension of their parents.

Even in describing the backlash to Brown v. Board of Education almost 70 years ago, it sounds like I could easily be discussing the protests from Moms for Liberty or the aggressive action against “woke” and critical race theory (CRT) from Republican-run states today. The two movements aren’t just tied together across time by their tactics or targets, but by their intentions. Because even as society has opened up, desegregated, shifted, and changed in the intervening decades, Massive Resistance never died.

As time has made Brown v. Board one of the most esteemed and cherished judicial acts in our nation’s history, it has also obscured the very fervent, very active, very cruel backlash that followed. Collective memory is happy to imagine the triumphant narrative of Black bravery, the end of Jim Crow, and the widespread acceptance of diversity rather than reckon with the reality of a malicious, coordinated campaign of open white supremacy launched and supported by every level of government—and silently tolerated by white majorities reluctant to rebuke their efforts.

The total effect of this pernicious mix of pride and shame is to erase the threat and power of the opposition to integration, and thus diminish the importance and accomplishment of civil rights organizers and activists in challenging the system.

And worse: It allows the most awful, denigrating, and dangerous forces of that era to survive to be used again.

Almost as soon as the Warren Court gave the order to desegregate public education “with all deliberate speed,” white lawmakers, administrators, and parents around the country began a counter-attack. And while the most extreme actions happened in the South, the case had been consolidated from lawsuits in Kansas and Delaware along with Virginia and South Carolina. Some of the protests against integration came in the form of riots, death threats, and violence (surprise, surprise), but much of it was handled through cold-blooded administration. 

School boards and government agencies responsible for public education crafted inadequate, incompetent plans or punted altogether on the question of how to desegregate. In some states, like Virginia, drafted laws suggested banning or placing onerous restrictions on lawsuits filed by the likes of the NAACP or non-parents, trying to prevent new cases from going before the courts. Other states began elaborate plans to abolish public education altogether, hand education over to private schools with public funding, or strip funding from schools or districts that attempted to integrate.

In the Deep South, Alabama and Mississippi simply refused to acknowledge the Supreme Court at all. And with few exceptions, the federal representatives of the former Confederacy rallied behind Senator Harry Byrd (ugh) of Virginia when he drafted what would be known as the “Southern Manifesto” in February 1956 and called for “massive resistance” against the integrationist regime.

Education was a right that belonged to the people and the states, the Manifesto would argue. It went on that the Supreme Court had usurped the Constitutional limits of its authority, the previously accepted meaning of the 14th Amendment, and the “amicable relations” between white and Black people by insisting that Black people had an equal right to public goods. Many of the signatories and their allies would insist that integration had been foisted upon them by external and malevolent forces, would “destroy” public education, and would irreparably harm children of all backgrounds. 

If this is starting to sound familiar, that’s not a coincidence.

Because in a little bit of history that Ron DeSantis has probably banned students from learning: This brutal, difficult, unconstitutional campaign of nullification and racism and “massive resistance”…worked.

The plan was to stall and drag until the federal government got bored or tired of trying to make segregationists comply. They would gum up the works, organize to lobby the courts, and wait until the feds either realized how fruitless it would be or changed enough to stop caring. The result was an undeniable success. In 1964, almost a decade after Brown v. Board was handed down, fewer than 5% of Black students in the segregated south attended integrated institutions. Prince Edward County in Virginia, the target of one of the lawsuits in the iconic case, simply closed its school districts for five years when ordered to desegregate, and would not reopen until the Supreme Court repealed their system of private vouchers.

Federal education legislation never got traction to close any of these gaps (thanks, filibuster!), and so even decades down the line, the disparities persist. Black students everywhere in the United States are less likely to have the resources, teachers, or educational opportunities of white counterparts—in part due to persistent racial segregation in housing, and in part due to the disinterest of the federal government to push integration.

Naturally, this has proven fertile ground for the reactionaries of our modern day, because we never actually defeated the reactionaries of the past. While extremist groups like Moms for Liberty are given wide latitude and even open endorsement from lawmakers to cosplay as “real Americans,” elected officials stock the apparatus of state with their cronies and use the administrative structure to dismantle, suppress, and undermine the same target their spiritual and political predecessors had: Integration.

So as our opponents claim their political inheritance, it’s time for all of us marginalized—by race, gender, sexuality—to do the same. If the likes of Ron DeSantis and other Republican governors are going to throw a wrench in the administration of the states, it is our chance to craft an aggressive and interventionist federal government to fix it. The answer to a campaign of massive resistance is not to let the scheming and stalling slow us down; the answer is to recognize that we’re big enough to break it.

Kaitlin Byrd
Kaitlin Byrd
Knows too much, thinks even more. Has infinite space in her heart for tea and breakfast for dinner. Really from New York, so always ready to cut a bitch.