The Rhetoric of Moderation: Desegregating The South During the Decade after 'Brown'

49 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2011

Date Written: 1994


For decades, the South's massive resistance to the Supreme Court's "Brown v. Board of Education" decision has fascinated scholars. Much of the scholarship of the post-"Brown" era has attempted to explain this massive resistance and to speculate on the reasons for its success. Yet not every southern state pursued a strategy of complete resistance to the "Brown" decision. Scholars have paid less attention to those few southern states that engaged in token integration during the first few years after "Brown."

Why did white leaders in the moderate states of the upper South respond to "Brown" with less outright defiance than did their deep-South brethren? Expressions of "moderation" in the post-"Brown" South did not reflect an acceptance of racial desegregation. Rather, "moderation," at the level of both rhetoric and action, became the means by which certain white southern leaders sought to avoid extensive pupil mixing imposed by the courts and to facilitate economic growth.

Politicians in the more moderate states understood that token integration, couched in the language of acceptance of the high court's mandate, could actually fend off more extensive judicially-imposed pupil mixing. This understanding was well-founded. On the tenth anniversary of "Brown," two of the most defiant states - Louisiana and Virginia - had a higher percentage of black students attending integrated schools than did some of the moderate states due to adverse court decisions compelling desegregation. Moreover, political leaders in the moderate states better understood the economic costs of massive resistance than did their colleagues in the defiant states. During the first decade following the "Brown" decision, tokenism, clothed in the rhetoric of moderation, became an effective tool in the moderate southern states to attract new business.

This article examines the way in which "moderation" functioned during the first decade after "Brown" by focusing primarily on one of the moderate southern states: North Carolina. In the aftermath of "Brown," North Carolina was perceived as assuming a more moderate response to "Brown" -- at the level of both political rhetoric and action -- than any other southern state. Coupled with this image as the most racially progressive of southern states, however, was the reality that North Carolina engaged in virtually no pupil mixing during the first decade after "Brown," even less than the defiant states of Virginia and Louisiana. Contrary to the experience in some of the defiant states, North Carolina's pupil assignment statute repeatedly passed judicial muster, thereby keeping the state's schools almost completely segregated for ten years and vindicating the hopes of those "moderates" who argued that token integration would fend off more intrusive judicial measures. At the same time, utilizing its reputation for moderation in racial matters, North Carolina enjoyed vibrant economic growth during the late 1950s and early 1960s, in contrast to some other southern states that engaged in well-publicized acts of defiance.

This article concludes that the concept of "moderation" in the post-"Brown" South, particularly in North Carolina, was a malleable concept, skillfully used by those committed to the retention of segregation to deflect widespread pupil integration. Resistance to "Brown" was far more spectacular in the defiant southern states such as Virginia or Louisiana, but equally effective in states such as North Carolina that understood the value of tokenism and appeals to moderation.

Keywords: School Desegregation, Desegregation, North Carolina, Brown v. Board of Education, Rhetoric of Moderation, Civil Rights History, History of School Desegregation, Massive Resistance, Interposition, Token Integration, Equal Protection, Judicial Enforcement of Brown Decision

Suggested Citation

Douglas, Davison M., The Rhetoric of Moderation: Desegregating The South During the Decade after 'Brown' (1994). Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 1, p. 92, 1994, William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-59, Available at SSRN:

Davison M. Douglas (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

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