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.

Men against the desegregation of schools making signs

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.