Peter Wallenstein: New book argues for 2nd look at civil rights movement at universities (interview)

Historians in the News

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....

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