'Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement'

January 2, 2008

For every James Meredith, who gained fame for becoming the first black student at the University of Mississippi, there were many other students who broke racial barriers without attracting much attention.Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners and College Campuses (University Press of Florida) tells the stories of some of those students and also portrays the broader story of the desegregation of higher education -- which the essays in the book argue was much more evolutionary than was James Meredith's experience at Ole Miss. Peter Wallenstein, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, edited the volume and responded to e-mail questions about its themes.

Q: The book talks about how the images many have of desegregation (James Meredith's admission or George Wallace in the doorway) give a false impression of how desegregation happened generally. How do those images differ from the full story?

A: Across the South, desegregation took place on campus after campus, in program after program, eventually in residence halls and athletic programs, usually with little fanfare or public notice. Yet the iconic moments in the desegregation of southern higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, those widely recognized, are four episodes that took place in Alabama (1956 and 1963), Georgia (1961), or Mississippi (1962). Each was characterized by violence and visibility -- a public show of mighty resistance to the enrollment of the first one or two black students.

Those episodes, those snapshots in time, have proved enduring. They garnered headlines at the time, and some 50 years later they continue to attract attention from historians and the wider public alike. Largely unnoticed at the time, and largely unnoticed since, are the dozens of moments at other schools, where the first black enrollment took place in grudging silence, as did various other breakthroughs on the way to full inclusion in the institutional life of the place. Every school had its own time line, its own pioneers. Each has its own stories.

Yet one must not exaggerate the differences between the most resistant states or institutions and the least. Each of the 17 segregated states, even if without public violence, acted only in the aftermath of litigation -- usually in their own states, but in some instances in response to developments elsewhere, whether these were Supreme Court decisions about higher education in 1938 or in 1948–1950 or the decisions in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 or 1955. Delaware, Maryland, and other Border South states did not offer violent resistance, but they conceded change, step by step, only as appeared required by court decisions.

Long after a black student began classes in one program, segregation -- deliberate exclusion -- often persisted in other programs on the same campus. We reprint a document from Missouri in 1950 in which university officials calculate which black applicants they have to admit under court order, and which ones they can continue to exclude. Even in schools -- Arkansas in 1948, for example -- that acted without a specific court order, acceptance of a black applicant into the law school or medical school did not bring an end to the traditional policy of excluding black undergraduates.

Q: Why was desegregation more controversial and difficult in some states than others?

A: Desegregation was most strongly resisted at flagship state schools in the Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Deep South states had the highest proportions of black citizens, and their white neighbors most feared the great loss of power and privilege that desegregation would bring. Whites in those states typically voted against the national Democratic Party in the presidential campaign of 1948, when they voted for Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, or in 1964, when they voted for Republican candidate Barry Goldwater rather than for Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet there were variations on the theme. In South Carolina, state leaders in 1963 did everything in their power, and that was a lot, to avoid their state’s becoming seen as “another Mississippi.”

Q: The collection includes an essay about the desegregation of big-time athletics in the South. How significant do you see athletics being in race relations in Southern higher education?

A: Athletic teams and contests reveal much of what seemed to be at stake in promoting or resisting the process of desegregation on campuses. Pioneer black students in the 1950s were permitted to participate on the wrestling team at Delaware or play intercollegiate tennis matches at North Carolina State, but these examples were unusual. Far more often, the first cohorts of black undergraduates were barred from representing their school in such public fashion. Nowhere was resistance greater than on flagship campuses in the Deep South -- the Universities of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi -- in varsity football programs. There, white supremacy and black exclusion endured well past the enrollment of the pioneer black students. Much had to change -- indeed, much had changed -- by the time African Americans played varsity football for Southeastern Conference schools.

Q: You dedicate the book to black students -- naming a number of them -- who were unable to earn degrees from Southern universities. Why did you focus on those students?

A: The dedication names various black Southerners who mounted serious efforts -- but who failed absolutely, sometimes at egregious personal cost -- to end the absolute segregation of public universities in the South. As one example: “Pauli Murray, not of the University of North Carolina.” I wanted -- all the contributors to the volume wanted -- to salute agents of change who did not themselves gain entrance but who led the way for those who followed. These men and women will not be known well or at all to most of our readers. But each of them demonstrated great resistance to segregation, and each elicited great resistance to any change on the racial front in higher education. Together they personify the varied stories we have told of the power of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era. They embodied the troubled process of bringing down the barriers that long maintained categorical black exclusion in historically white institutions of southern higher education.

Q: What lessons does this history have for race relations in higher education today?

A: Our book relates the lengthy process of desegregation on college campuses to the long civil rights movement, from the 1930s into the 1970s. We observe that desegregation was not complete as of 1970, nor, as we see it, is full inclusion necessarily accomplished even now. If we understand desegregation as a drawn-out process, often grudgingly conceded, unevenly implemented, we have a potentially useful way to understand patterns we see in the early years of the 21st century.

In institutions of higher education, much as in K–12 schools, white resistance typically postponed any black enrollment, limited it when it came, and, especially in the early years but not just then, narrowly channeled the changes that did come. Decades after the first enrollment of black students, historically white “public” institutions of higher education largely continue to display disproportionate white enrollment. Moreover, even though students of Asian ancestry could often fully participate in campus life at “all-white” institutions during the Jim Crow years, the historical experiences of African American and other nonwhite students are often conflated.

At the close of the book, we speak of “unfinished business” -- unfinished business in reconstructing Americans’ historical understanding of the past, as well as unfinished business in eradicating the exclusionary past of separate-and-unequal higher education. We tell of how various schools have commemorated what they once resisted. Even today, on campus after campus, questions of proprietary claims -- and comfort levels -- persist. Whose campus is it, really?

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