Massive Resistance: An Overview


Massive Resistance was a strategic effort orchestrated by U.S. Senator Harry Byrd and Virginia politicians to oppose federal mandates requiring public schools to desegregate. Harry Byrd used his political machine, “The Organization,” to assemble other politicians to use political maneuvering to block desegregation. By crafting policies that directly affected desegregation, the Organization systematically interrupted racial integration of schools through legislation and extra-legal means. The key to Massive Resistance was the deliberate effort of the Byrd Organization to mobilize key figures of the federal, state and local government to hinder segregation at every level. For example, Byrd built relationships with "courthouse cliques," consisting of the constitutional officers in every county. Byrd’s organization influenced Virginia politics for over 40 years. The Organization’s most effective strategy was to facilitate collaboration of federal, state, and local figures to collectively infuse Massive Resistance into state politics. Governor Thomas Stanley, Attorney General James Lindsay Almond Jr., and political columnist James J. Kilpatrick fueled the systematic, policy-driven pro-segregation movement in Virginia. 

Portrait of Harry F. Byrd, Sr.

Portrait of Harry F. Byrd, Sr.

Harry F. Byrd, Sr.:

Harry F. Byrd, Sr. was the organizer behind Massive Resistance, with his influence in Virginia government, he mustered the support and selected key individuals to implement the campaign of Massive Resistance. In an oral history interview with Virginius Dabney, Dabney explained Senator Byrd’s aptitude for organizing:

He was a very affable, genial man with people he liked. His great forte was his ability to organize, he was a tremendous organizer. All the politicians said that he could organize a campaign better than anybody they ever saw. When he got involved in a campaign, he would get on the phone and he knew exactly whom to call up in every county. (Dabney 1975)

The key figures he identified to carry out Massive Resistance were Thomas Stanley, James Lindsay Almond Jr., and James Kilpatrick. Through these figures, he organized the campaign to resist federal desegregation orders and used each figure to advocate for segregationist legislation, rile up the public opinion, and enforce and defend the segregationist policies. According to Virginius Dabney, Byrd saw Virginia as a central element to a larger struggle against federal legislation:

Byrd said several times that Virginia was the key to this whole fight, and if Virginia went down, they wouldn't be able to hold the line. So, he did feel that this was the crux of the whole thing and that Virginia should stand firm. (Dabney 1975) 

The Byrd Organization:

The combination of Governor Thomas B. Stanley, Attorney General James Lindsay Almond Jr., and James J. Kilpatrick were essential components to the success of Massive Resistance. While U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd assembled politicians, local courts and states in the south to support the movement, these figures carried out the resistance through the state, courts, and media. In other words, Governor Stanley, Attorney General James Lindsay Almond Jr., and James Kilpatrick provided the organizational action and man-power behind the movement. Governor Stanley mustered the legislative support, Attorney General James Lindsay Almond arranged legal loopholes, and James Kilpatrick marshaled the ideological justification for Massive Resistance through columns in the Richmond News Leader. As a result of the Organization’s work, the General Assembly agreed to adopt the recommendations to oppose desegregation. The months of February and March 1956 consisted of a battle between moderate and extreme segregationist with the Virginia General Assembly. The Byrd Organization and extreme segregationist wanted to implement the recommendations made by a special commission established immediately after the Brown decision to find loopholes to resist integration of public schools. The commission was established in August 1954 and officially titled “the Virginia Public Eduation Commission,” but became known as the Gray Commission. The Byrd Organization and southern conservatives wanted to enact the Gray Commission’s recommendations, while the moderate segregationist opposed them. Both sides failed to agree on a cohesive plan and the legislative session concluded before they could come to an agreement. It was not until September 1956 that the General Assembly approved recommendations of the Gray Commission under the “Stanley Plan.”

Thomas B. Stanley:

During his term Thomas B. Stanley’s term as the 57th Governor of Virginia, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was passed, which declared that segregation was unconstitutional. Governor Stanley and Attorney General James Lindsay Almond, Jr., along with a number of Virginia politicians, worked hard to stop integration efforts using the Organization’s network. Governor Stanley was known as a staunch white supremacist and leveraged his power as governor to "use every legal means at my command to continue segregated schools in Virginia” (Patterson, 79).

Governor Stanley was determined to resist integration. As a result of the Virginia Education Commission’s recommendations, he implemented “The Stanley Plan.” His plan represented the second phase in a series of laws against desegregation that used economic measures to oppose integration. Governor Stanley, Former Governor William A. Tuck, Howard Smith, Representative Watkins Moorman Abbitt, and Representative Burr Harrison decided to deny state appropriated funds to public schools that integrated. They also gave local and state police the authority to physically stop integration, repealed the ability of schools districts to be sued, and instituted measures to assign students to certain schools based on specific criteria.

During the summer of 1956, a number of courts ordered desegregation of public schools. This prompted Governor Stanley to institute his plan and signaled the beginning of the larger movement of Massive Resistance. Stanley stated he would go to “any extreme that may be necessary to prevent integration anywhere in Virginia” (Sweeney 139). Again, the battle between extreme and moderate segregationists stalled the immediate passage of the Stanley Plan.

Disagreements and debates raged on, all whilst schools were going through the process of federally mandated integration. This fueled the urgency to pass policies to reverse integration. A number of revisions had to be made to the Stanley Plan in order for the House and Senate to approve the legislation. After months of debate and contention, the final bill passed in September 1956.

The anchor of the Stanley Plan gave direct legal action to the Governor, allowing the Governor to close any schools facing a federal desegregation order. The reasoning behind this measure held that no one person or group would pursue legal action against the Governor. The Stanley Plan created multiple measures to enforce desegregation, which included: the ability to withhold state funding from desegregated schools, the power to shut down integrated schools, the creation of grants and tuition subsidies to students that would maintain segregation, and the enumeration of criteria to re-assign students to schools. 

Soon after the enactment of the Stanley Plan, litigation from parents, businesses, and individuals against Virginia school districts questioned the constitutionality of the Stanley Plan and the legality of school shutdowns.  

James Lindsay Almond, Jr.:

The turnover of Governorship and development of court cases led to the dismantling of the Stanley plan. Interesting enough, former Attorney General James Lindsay, who was integral to the pro-segregation movement just months before, accepted the slow dismantling of Massive Resistance as the 58th Governor of Virginia in 1958. Additionally, Almond ran for governor under a platform that promised to continue former Governor Stanley’s pro-segregation efforts on public schools.

Under his governorship, Charlottesville, Front Royal and Norfolk public schools were shutdown to prevent them from integration. Governor Almond’s most apparent action to stop integration occurred when he revoked the superintendents’ ability to desegregate public schools. The General Assembly urged Governor Almond to shutdown schools that were guarded by federal troops protecting African-American students. The General Assembly refused to give state funds to schools that planned to integrate.

Governor James Almond utilized the powers of the Stanley plan to continue segregation of public schools. While schools were closed, parents, small businesses, and legislators mounted a series of complaints and litigation urging Governor Almond to desegregate schools. White parents from large districts in Norfolk and Northern Virginia complained that the school shutdown was displacing their children. A number of schools had been closed and it became apparent that private institutions could not accommodate the number of displaced school children, estimated to be 13,000 students. Complaints from businessmen about the economic consequences of segregation proved a decisive factor in Governor Almond’s decision to backtrack on Massive Resistance to instate more passive measures. Officially, Massive Resistance ended in 1959, however, opposition to federal desegregation orders continued in the form of Pupil Placement Boards and the Freedom of Choice Plan. 

James J. Kilpatrick and Harry F. Byrd, Sr.

James J. Kilpatrick (left) and Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (right)

James J. Kilpatrick:


Another essential leader of Massive Resistance was editor of the Richmond News Leader, James J. Kilpatrick. Through his column in the Richmond New Leader, he crafted a pro-segregation narrative that many politicians and citizens could comprehend and replicate. For example, he strongly advocated for a state funded voucher system for veteran’s children to attend schools. To some, this was seen as a tactic to deter integration and create private education institutions. Shortly after the Virginia General Assembly passed this measure, the Supreme Court declared in Almond v. Day that it was unconstitutional to allocate state funds to private educational programs.

Kilpatrick’s rhetoric stemmed from Civil War ideology of “interposition,” a states’ rights doctrine arguing states had the right to oppose and even nullify federal court rulings. According to Virginius Dabney, Kilpatrick dug up a pamphlet from a Civil War-era county lawyer outlining the theory of interposition. Dabney explains:

Kilpatrick read that pamphlet and he grabbed the ball and ran with it and made a really astonishing campaign in which he convinced a lot of people that this was the answer to the whole problem. (Dabney 1975)

Kilpatrick’s polemical and conservative writing helped shape the ideology around Massive Resistance. His columns on states’ rights went hand in hand with his writing on the purity of the white race. As late as 1964, Kilpatrick wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post arguing “the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” Kilpatrick’s writing influenced a generation of Southern conservatives to apply quasi-constitutionalist rhetoric to resist the power of the federal government. 

Virginia Public Education Commission:

In direct response of the Supreme Court’s decision, Governor Stanley along with a number of politicians including former Governor William A. Tuck, formulated legislative responses to Brown v. Board of Education. The first phase was the Gray Commission chaired by Senator Garland Gray. The group, officially titled the “Virginia Public Education Commission,” advocated for continued segregation of public schools. The Virginia Public Education Commission worked with other such as the Defenders of State Sovereignty to pass legislation that would defund desegregated schools. The federal government mandated that all public schools be integrated but a number of politicians in Virginia were determined to block all efforts.

The Virginia Public Education Commission recommended that Governor Stanley remove state funding to public schools where desegregation was planned or occurring. They reasoned that it was for the safety and welfare of communities. They purposed shutting down all public schools and establishing only private school that would require a special voucher. These vouchers would economically discriminate students and thus segregation of schools would continue. The commission wanted to allocate the vouchers to white families in localities with shut down schools or to those who opposed enrolling their children in desegregated schools. The commission recommended that school boards of localities gain the authority to reassign students to certain schools based on criteriathat did not pertain to race. This would facilitate segregation by seemingly race-neutral means. For example, the primary criteria proposed that school boards assign students based on their test scores, grades and location. Governor Stanley accepted the Commission’s recommendations and the General Assembly convened for three weeks to discuss implementation of these measures. James Kilpatrick played an imperative role in justifying the ideology of segregation in that he published columns in the Richmond News Leader decrying the constitutionality of Brown vs. Board of Education. In these almost daily censures, Kilpatrick asserted the right of a state to oppose or “interpose” its power to stop the implementation of federal court rulings.

Court Cases End Massive Resistance, Pupil Placement Board continues Segregation Efforts:

It took until 1959 for the U.S. District Court and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to rule unconstitutional the closure of public schools to avoid federal desegregation orders. The ruling in Harrison v. Day forced Governor Almond to reconsider state sanctioned segregation in Virginia. In February 1959, Governor Almond rescinded the power to shut down public schools because of integration. In late 1959 and early 1960, Governor Almond retreated from his previous stance on segregation and subtly subdued the overt Massive Resistance entailed in the Stanley Plan. Though the legislatively enforced Massive Resistance officially ended in 1960, Governor Almond continued with efforts to halt desegregation with tedious measures. The combination of the Pupil Placement Board and Freedom of Choice plan sought to keep desegregation at a minimum. The Pupil Placement Board placed students in schools based on standardized test scores, while the “Freedom of Choice” plan gave families the right to choose between white and black schools, independent of race. Title IV of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education act of 1965 withheld federal funding from schools resisting integration. In 1968, three Supreme Court cases argued for the inadequacy of the Freedom of Choice plan. By the early 1970s, none of these plans remained in effect.  


Crawley, William Bryan Jr. Bill Tuck: A Political Life in Harry Byrd's Virginia. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville VA, 1978.

Dabney, Virginius. Interview. Documenting the American South July 31 1975.

Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 271

Hershman, James H. Jr. “Massive Resistance.” Encyclopedia of Virginia.

Mays, David J. Race, Reason, and Massive Resistance: The Diary of David J. Mays, 1954-1959. James R. Sweeney, ed. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Patterson, James Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

“The State Responds: Massive Resistance.”

Wilkinson, J. Harvie III. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945-1966. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville VA, 1968, p.4-8

Massive Resistance: An Overview