1954: Arlington in the Wake of Brown v. Board of Education
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. In a unanimous decision, the court reversed the case law of Plessy v. Ferguson. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the high court, held: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Brown v. Board of Education sent shockwaves throughout the South, including Virginia. For some, especially in the Black community, it was hailed as a great victory. For others, largely white, it was seen as a threat to their very way of life.
In the capital of Richmond, U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd and his tightly controlled political machine began to gear up a program known as “Massive Resistance,” intended to defy the Supreme Court ruling by any means necessary, including shutting down the schools if need be. The state removed Arlington’s democratically elected School Board and installed a new board more sympathetic to the segregationist cause.
But there was another group at play in Arlington, one that proved instrumental in the story of desegregation: white racial moderates, who may not have minded segregation but didn’t want to lose their school system over it. In the end, they were pivotal in advancing the cause of desegregation over the objections of much of the appointed School Board.