The Massive Resistance Movement Against Obama

The right has adopted tactics that echo efforts to block school desegregation in the 1950s. This time they may permanently damage our political system.

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We haven't wanted to face it. We've tried to avoid it. We've hoped that last summer's town halls, the Birthers, the deliberate misinformation about President Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, the refusal of Republican leadership to engage with the president in good faith -- we hoped that all of these things represented the temporary growing pains of a nation that was navigating unchartered waters after courageously electing its first African-American president at a time of devastating economic turmoil.

We've hoped that, as Obama showed himself to be a pragmatic centrist rather than a liberal firebrand, things would settle down. We've watched the president twist himself inside out in pursuit of "bipartisanship." We've seen the president make two careful, moderate picks for the Supreme Court, even as his base clamored for the appointment of more ideologically liberal justices. But as the midterm congressional elections approach and the nation hangs on Sarah Palin's every tweet, and Glenn Beck bizarrely positions himself as a civil rights activist, it's time to face up to the obvious and painful truth: We've been witnessing what is the equivalent of "massive resistance" to the Obama presidency.

Massive resistance was a call to arms by Virginia Sen. Harry S. Byrd Jr. after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Virginia Gov. Thomas Stanley reasoned that "if we can organize the Southern states for massive resistance to this order ... the rest of the country will realize that racial integration will not be accepted in the South." He closed the white schools of Norfolk until mounting media and litigation pressure forced him to reopen the schools a year later.

But the poster child for massive resistance, of course, was the 1959 decision of the Prince Edward County School Board in Virginia to close its schools rather than desegregate. The schools in the county remained closed for five years. White students largely flocked to private academies after the first year. The first one -- the Prince Edward Academy -- and other schools like it received tuition dollars and tax credits provided by the state.

Black students were left with few options. Parents who could scrape together the means sent their children to relatives in other parts of the state or to other states. Many more simply saw their education come to a standstill. Many black students who were in the fifth grade when the schools were closed didn't return five years later when the schools reopened. What 16-year-old wants to re-enter school as a sixth-grader? It wasn't until 1964, when the court outlawed Prince Edward County's appropriation of tax dollars for private-school tuition grants to these private academies, that schools were reopened in the county -- a full 10 years after Brown.

Private "academies," using private and public money and benefiting from tax breaks, sprang up all over the South. These academies became the shadow education system for white pupils. But the South wasn't the only region that forcefully resisted school integration. The violent resistance of whites to busing in Boston rivals any actions taken by Southern jurisdictions.

There was passive resistance as well. The Supreme Court's decision in Milliken v. Bradley, striking down orders that required busing across city and suburban lines, ensured that whites willing to leave the nation's major cities for the then nearly all-white suburbs could avoid the prospect of sending their children to integrated schools. In all, the promise of Brown was never fulfilled -- not because it was impossible to educate our nation's children in desegregated schools, but because massive resistance, both institutional and individual, refused to give it a chance.

In this same way, resistance to the Obama presidency has begun to mirror that marshaled against Brown. As Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) -- now fighting to hold on to his once-sure seat -- observed when he visited all of the counties in his state after Obama's election, "a conscious decision was made by some groups to destroy this presidency even before it started." Rush Limbaugh candidly admitted in the first days after the inauguration that he wanted the Obama presidency to fail.

The legitimate anger and frustration of voters at the massive bank bailout, and the pressures of the economic crisis, understandably inspired populist activism. Progressives, exhausted from the campaign or still celebrating the Obama election, missed the opportunity to take advantage of populist outrage to build support for resistance to the rise of the unfettered corporate state.

But the channeling of legitimate anger by town hall protesters and many Tea Party activists into an all-out challenge to the legitimacy of Obama as president has revealed the extent to which animosity toward Obama himself is what lies at the heart of these movements. The theory that this rise in anti-government activism is triggered by a concern for fiscal responsibility and the bloated deficit would carry more weight if these same concerned citizens had revealed their resistance to unfettered spending during the Bush administration's run-up of a trillion-dollar deficit pursuing two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM