1964 May 25

Supreme Court Orders Virginia County to Reopen Public Schools


School board officials in Prince Edward County, Virginia, had closed the public schools on May 1, 1959, rather than integrate them in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education. In Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, decided on this day, the Supreme Court ordered the county to reopen public schools. The closure of the public schools for five years is referred to as “the lost years.”

The action by the Prince Edward County officials was only one of several anti-integration efforts by southern states under their policy of “massive resistance” to school integration. Other actions included the “Southern Manifesto,” in which 100 southern members of Congress on March 12, 1956 pledged to fight the Brown v. Board of Education decision on school integration; an Alabama law which would have forced the NAACP in the state to disclose its membership list, and thereby expose members to retaliation, but which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on June 30, 1958 and established a First Amendment freedom of association; and a set of Virginia laws designed to limit legal advocacy by the NAACP, which Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on April 2, 1963.

The school closing episode left a lasting legacy for education and race in the county. The 2010 Census reported that the county population was 36 percent African-American. The public school population, however, was a majority African-American, while only 5 percent of the private schools, the legacy of the closing crisis, were African-American.

The Court: “There has been entirely too much deliberation and not enough speed in enforcing the constitutional rights which we held in Brown v. Board of Education, supra, had been denied Prince Edward County Negro children.”

And: “. . . we agree with the District Court that closing the Prince Edward schools and meanwhile contributing to the support of the private segregated white schools that took their place denied petitioners the equal protection of the laws.”

Read the 2015 book on the historic events: Kristen Green, Something Must be Done About Prince Edward County (2015)

Learn about the history of the case: Jill Titus, Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (2011)

Learn more about the Prince Edward County struggle:  http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/african-americans-campaign-reopening-public-schools-prince-edward-county-farmville-va-1959-1

Learn more: George Lewis, Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement (2006)

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