Why Massive Resistance?

29 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2003  

Michael J. Klarman

Harvard University

Date Written: May 2003


This paper seeks to explain the phenomenon of southern massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. Given that there were white racial moderates in the South - people who favored compliance with court orders, opposed school closures, and would have tolerated gradual desegregation - why did Brown so radicalize southern politics, leading temporarily to a fairly unified effort by southern states to defy the Court? One explanation focuses on southern politicians. Either because they miscalculated their constituents' preferences or because they demagogically capitalized on their constituents' fears, politicians became extremists and created an environment that chilled the expression of moderate sentiment. On this view, massive resistance was not inevitable, at least outside of the Deep South.

This paper takes a different tack, arguing that the political dynamics of the segregation issue, combined with certain features of southern politics, ineluctably propelled public debate toward extremism, independently of the machinations of politicians. Several factors helped foster massive resistance. Diehard segregationists had stronger preferences than did most moderates. They also had the capacity and the inclination to use repressive tactics to create the appearance that southern whites were united behind massive resistance. Diehard states similarly exerted pressure on more moderately inclined neighbors to support massive resistance. Further, legislative malapportionment exaggerated the political power of extremists. Perhaps most important, the desire of nearly all southern whites to preserve segregation if possible virtually ensured an attempt at massive resistance. Differences among whites concerned the costs that they were willing to bear to preserve segregation, not their preference for it. Finally, the use of federal troops, which proved necessary to suppress massive resistance, ironically bolstered it in the short term.

Suggested Citation

Klarman, Michael J., Why Massive Resistance? (May 2003). UVA School of Law, Public Law Working Paper No. 03-7. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=410062 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.410062

Michael J. Klarman (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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