portrait of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant
In the spring of 1965, a hundred years after the surrender papers were signed by generals Lee and Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the slaughter that had taken more than 600,000 lives, Virginia remained ensnared in the racial legacy that had fostered civil war. Slavery was abolished, but the belief in white supremacy lived on. A decade earlier its General Assembly had passed, and its governor had signed, a bill promising to resist, and resist massively, the new constitutional requirement that black students could no longer be denied admission to schools attended by white people. They would close schools rather than permit the mingling of the two races. And they were as good as their word, as people in Charlottesville, Warren County and Norfolk well know.
At Virginia’s capstone university, President Colgate Darden knew that this Massive Resistance legislation could not stand legal scrutiny, but he was reluctant to speak out publicly against it. Although he once wrote that “segregation has been used time after time as a shield for discrimination and oppression,” he believed that segregation in the public schools was best for both black and white students. The abolition of school segregation, he testified in the Prince Edward County case, “would impede rather than improve public education in the Southern states.”
Back in 1935, when Richmonder Alice Jackson applied for admission to the University of Virginia’s graduate school, she was told that to admit her would be to violate “the long established and fixed policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” More than a decade later, an African-American named Gregory Swanson took his application for admission to UVa’s Law School to the courts. He knew that using the law to gain admission would put a dent in the University’s “fixed policy.”
The university’s long history of denying blacks the right to study or teach on its premises was often accompanied and reinforced by extreme white supremacy rhetoric and beliefs. For example, Paul Barringer, the last chairman of the faculty (a post abolished in 1904 when the university’s first president was appointed), while he also chaired a national white supremacy organization, wrote frequently of what he called the scientific proof of black inferiority. No longer slaves, blacks were now on the “return to barbarism,” which, he wrote, “is as natural as the return of the sow that is washed to her wallowing in the mire.” He believed blacks lacked all of the civilized characteristics valued by white people. “Comfort, health, self-respect, and gentility,” he wrote, “are as a rule nothing compared with the gratification of vanity, lust, the craving for drink, tobacco, the gaming habit, etc.” Supply a black man’s “bodily wants, including a woman,” he wrote, “and he is happy under any social conditions.”
By 1947, when Darden became president, such language was generally foreign to the university’s leaders. In response to Swanson’s application, the president and his Board of Visitors knew they could not prohibit him from enrolling in the Law School. Instead, they hoped to limit the precedent of his admission to that school.
That ambition was thwarted, but 10 years after Swanson’s entry only a handful of black students had made their way into the university. None had broken the barriers thrown up by the College of Arts & Sciences. It remained a haven for white males.
Also by the spring of 1965, the Southern civil rights movement had successfully pushed for legislation outlawing segregation in public places. In Selma, Ala., that spring, voter registration drives aroused a national demand that blacks no longer be denied the right to vote. Frenzied opposition to that goal led to brutal opposition, including the murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb, and the beating of men, women and children on the Pettus Bridge by George Wallace’s troopers would lead to passage of the Voting Rights Act. President Lyndon Johnson would address the Congress, using the words of the civil rights anthem, as he spoke for the adoption of his voting bill, declaring “we shall overcome.”
The nation was changing, making its strongest commitment yet to racial justice. At our university, however, such change in sentiment had neither occurred nor was contemplated. Except where students were concerned. It was they who were mobilizing to change their university.
Responding to the brutalization of black people seeking the right to vote, students organized what came to be called a “sympathy for Selma” demonstration. Beyond “sympathy,” their purpose was to link the mission of the university to the struggle for racial justice. That was a link the university did not wish to see forged.
Tom Gardner, a student, carried with him as he marched into Montgomery, Ala., a placard with a Jefferson quote and the words “University of Virginia.” On his return to Charlottesville he was called into a dean’s office to be reprimanded. The university should not be linked to controversial causes, he was admonished. The dean sent a letter to Tom’s parents, informing them of their son’s “inappropriate” behavior. I would receive a modest rebuke from the president for the letter I wrote to my colleagues, inviting them to attend the occasion. In future, the president told me (through channels) I should act “with more discretion.”
Ignoring these hostile acts and official statements of university positions, one speaker at the event did precisely what the dean said must not be done. Merrill Peterson, the recently (and avidly) recruited Jefferson Foundation professor of history, said in his speech: “This university, dedicated by its father to the illimitable freedom of the human spirit, bears a high responsibility to the cause of free men everywhere, …above all to the Selmas of our beloved country.” No university, he said, “has a clearer title to speak for that heritage in the present crisis than the University of Virginia. And it is high time (long past time) we were heard from.” Unlike Tom and me, Merrill was ignored. No member of the administration spoke to him about his remarks. There were no words of rebuke. There were no private words of approval or congratulation.
Responding to a complaint about the whole affair from an alumnus, the rector of the university wrote critically about my letter inviting colleagues to the student demonstration at the Rotunda. In a memorable phrase he announced that he did not believe in “government by demonstration.” The implication was clear: The Board of Visitors, over which he presided, and the university president, who reported to his board, were the decision makers, not the students, and certainly not in matters of race. Their “demonstrations” were not the appropriate means of dictating the way the university should operate.
Inspired by the wider civil rights movement, which many of them joined, an increasing number of students worked to forge a movement that would, in time, alter the university’s racial policies.