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The Brown decision in 1954 gave the South a great opportunity to do the right thing, to right a great wrong, by integrating its public schools.
It could've been done. And there were scattered examples of courageous local leaders who got it done. And there were other examples of courageous local leaders who tried to get it done but failed because they got no help, not even moral support, from the state-level and congressional-level leadership.
It was that higher-level Southern leadership that really blew the great opportunity, the great challenge, that the Brown decision presented to the region. For all their pissing and moaning, and shilly-shallying and pettifoggery, those “leaders” knew very well what the right thing to do was, but instead of seizing the moment they turned tail and pleaded incompetence. Instead of using their influence and their ingenuity to get the job done — and they had to know it would be done with them or without them — they did everything in their power to keep it from being done at all.
The golden opportunity was still extant two years after Brown, but it couldn't, and didn't, survive the Southern Manifesto.
If you don't know what the Southern Manifesto is, or which of our congressional worthies signed the damned thing (all the Arkie delegation) and which ones didn't, and what a devastating impact the document had on prospects for peaceable school integration and civil-rights accommodation generally in the South after 1956, you could look it up. And you should. Or you could get hold of “New Deal/New South: An Anthony J. Badger Reader” just published by the University of Arkansas Press at Fayetteville, and read the sad, infuriating story there.
Badger is a British history professor at Cambridge University and thus a most unlikely expert commentator on Southern U.S. politics, but he is wise in the ways of Southern demagogues, from the grass-eaters to the barn-burners, and he isn't one to let them weasel out of their historic responsibilities on the strength of colorful or charismatic political style.
His book is a fresh assessment of Southern politics from the New Deal through the elections of 1970, and it hinges (almost literally so, in fact) on the Southern Manifesto and the damage that blowhard piece of uncalled-for mischief caused. I never quite realized before this book how much the manifesto emboldened the fierier segs at a time when they might have been most receptive to a firm, uncompromising, and positive statement from leaders actually committed to leading.
J. William Fulbright signed the thing, and it's a painful experience still to review the excuses and rationalizations he made ever after. Brooks Hays was immediately and immensely disappointed in himself for having committed what he knew was a serious sin. And you might know it was Faubus, already well along that catastrophic path of expediency upon which he would soon find immortal infamy, who made a special trip to D.C. to persuade Hays and Jim Trimble to betray their consciences and affix their Hancocks, on the ground that only in cowardly unanimity could elective Southern politicians find safe hiding from the duty that the Brown decision imposed on them.
Professor Badger's book is $59.95 in hard cover, but a much more tolerable $19.95 in the perfectly adequate paperback edition.