Paper by David Flash written for History 320R: Texas 1914 to Present at The University of Texas at Austin; Grade 92/100; Mean 78.9/100

On May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court’s Brown decision decreed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court ruled that public schools must admit students “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.” Authorities in several segregationist states focused more on deliberation than speed, often deliberating about tactics to avoid compliance with the court’s decree. Robyn Ladino’s narrative of the first post-Brown secondary school integration case, Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High details how segregationists’ tactics were often successful, causing years-long delays in the federally-mandated integration of many segregated school districts. President Dwight Eisenhower’s lack of public support along with Governor Allan Shivers’ vehement opposition to it, served to embolden local segregationist resistance and slow the process of court-mandated integration in Texas’ public schools.

While Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that the doctrine of “separate but equal” had no proper place in the public education system, southern segregationists disagreed. NAACP lawyers Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, like most soldiers in the desegregation battle, “realized that there are those who would defy the ruling and others who would drag their feet…,” because separatist sentiments ran deep in many southern communities.[1] Some segregationists saw integration of public schools as a threat southern culture and to white America’s racial purity, others objected on quasi-religious grounds. “If God had wanted us to go to school together,” a teenager in a crowd protesting integration opined, “He wouldn’t have made them black and us white.”[2] A White Citizens’ Council leaflet opposing desegregation articulated their hard-line opposition to Brown’s enforcement: “WE SHALL NOT BE INTEGRATED! We are proud of our white blood and our white heritage of sixty centuries.”[3]

Black students in Mansfield, Texas won an injunctive decree in Federal Court requiring that they be allowed to attend classes at their community’s high school on August 27, 1956, but the Mansfield’s segregationists did not concede defeat and assent to integration. In fact, once the school board’s appeals and avenues of legal resistance were exhausted, a segregationist mob physically encircled the school to impede integration by any means necessary. The townspeople most opposed to segregation, as remembered by Mansfield School Board member Melvin Meeks, were literally transmorgified by anger. Meeks recalls two lifelong friends he ran into, protesting beneath a black effigy that hung from Mansfield High’s flagpole, “They were so mad! Something built up inside of [them]. They didn’t look like the people I knew… Their faces was so blood red…”.[4] Despite court decrees siding with the community’s African American students, the palpable anger and brazen defiance of a precariously-close-to-violent mob won the day, and the decade, in Mansfield’s desegregation battle. Segregationists’ de facto victory was sustained until 1965, when fear of losing federal funds finally cajoled the Mansfield School District into compliance with Brown.

Faced with immediate mob resistance to federally ordered desegregation in Mansfield, Governor Shivers’ actions to maintain “law and order” actually fanned the flames of segregationist resistance and emboldened those openly defying the law to continue doing so. Political expediency had compelled Shivers to run on a platform that called segregation “the system that we know is best.” His proclamation that “No law, no court, can wreck what God has made,” resonated with the white voters who had put him in office in 1954.[5] Since the turn of the twentieth century, black voters in Texas had been disfranchised en masse via a poll tax, violent intimidation, and up until 1947, the all-white Democratic primary.[6] The relatively few blacks that did vote in Texas’ 1954 gubernetorial election cast ballots at a seven to one ratio in favor of Shivers’ opponent, Ralph Yarborough.[7] As Texas’ chief executive, Shivers used the considerable powers and resources at his office’s disposal to advocate for the wishes of his mostly-white patrons, even when those wishes were directly countermanded by federal law. The governor defied the court when he sided with the segregationist scofflaws protesting at Mansfield, declaring that he would not “permit the use of state officers to […] intimidate citizens who are making orderly protest against a situation instigated and agitated by the [NAACP].”[8]

State law enforcement officers sent by the governor to keep the peace in Mansfield were intentionally and conspicuously not tasked with protecting the black students whom a federal court order compelled Mansfield High School to admit. Citing his “constitutional responsibility for maintaining law and order in Texas,” Shivers actually authorized the Texas Rangers to arrest any African Americans arriving at the high school, for the purpose of avoiding the possible mob conflagration and violence that their very presence could cause. If any African American student somehow managed to register in spite of the mob surrounding the building and Shivers’ arrest-on-sight orders, the Texas Governor authorized the school  to “transfer out” any African American students if their presence were deemed to incite threats of violence from the throng of white protestors outside.[9] Shivers’ view of his “constitutional responsibility” did not seem to include any responsibility at all toward protecting the rights of illegally oppressed Texans in Mansfield. Judging by his actions, the governor’s only sense of “constitutional responsibility” appeared to be delivering on the desires of the white segregationists who voted him into office.

While President Eisenhower did not directly endorse or support Shivers’ de facto nullification of a federal court mandate, he did not intervene in any manner. Furthermore, his failure to affirm that his executive branch would stand behind and enforce the rulings of the nation’s highest court had emboldened Shivers and the Mansfield protestors in the first place. Asked his stance on the Brown decrees, a carefully measured answer typical of Eisenhower was, “The Supreme Court, as I understand it, is not under my administration.”[10] While Eisenhower’s punt was viewed by some segregationists as tacit approval of their extra-legal resistance efforts, Governor Shivers aggressively asserted by his actions that he believed thwarting desegregation efforts in Texas was under his administration.

When Shivers sided with the scofflaws and took the aforementioned actions that were, in Marshall’s words, “wrong” and “above all law,” Eisenhower demurred.[11] Privately, the president had sympathy toward southerners who had been living under the Supreme Court’s Plessy decision, the “separate but equal” doctrine, for 60 years prior to Brown. The Supreme Court’s desegregation decision had, in Eisenhower’s words, “created acute and far reaching problems due to ending social patterns heretofore established in some sections of the country conforming to prior decisions of the same court.” These sentiments, known privately by several of Eisenhower’s colleagues and confidantes, likely impacted his reluctance to take a public stand for integration. The President’s stated goal was to “[steer] clear of paternalistic ‘Big-Brother-is-watching-you’ kind of interference” in America’s integration vs. segregation row. [12] However, by failing to get behind the courts and act as a countervailing force against segregationist resistance to the new law of the land, Eisenhower did not render the executive branch a neutral force in the battle. Southern resistance to the court’s desegregation ruling was “aggravated,” in the words of Chief Justice Warren, “by the fact that no word of support for the decision emanated from the White House.”[13]

Given the opportunity, could government intervention have quelled Mansfield’s mob-fiat rejection of court-ordered desegregation? Judging by the outcome of contemporaneous mob fueled integration protests in Kentucky and Tennessee and the following year’s integration of Little Rock Schools, where state and federal efforts to enforce the law of the land prevailed,[14] the answer was Yes. Eisenhower’s administration, by declining to act as a countervailing force to segregationists at the state and local level, added federal executive power to the confluence of forces working to maintain segregated schools and slowed the process of court-mandated integration.

Bibliography

Campbell, Randolph. Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, Second Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Ladino, Robyn Duff. Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at

Mansfield High, Kindle Edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).

Ozanne, Rachel. Lecture on The Rise of Jim Crow in Texas, University of Texas at Austin, Fall 2018.

Notes

[1] Robyn Duff Ladino, Desegregating Texas Schools: Eisenhower, Shivers, and the Crisis at Mansfield High, Kindle Edition. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 589

[2] Ladino, 2252.

[3] Ladino, 735.

[4] Ladino, 2363.

[5] Randolph B. Campbell, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, Second Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), Ch. 19, 21:00.

[6] Rachel Ozanne, Lecture on The Rise of Jim Crow in Texas, University of Texas at Austin, Fall 2018.

[7] Campbell, Ch. 19, 24:30.

[8] Ladino, 2401.

[9] Ladino, 2412.

[10] Ladino, 1281.

[11] Ladino, 2747.

[12] Ladino, 1662.

[13] Ladino, 1476.

[14] Ladino, 2892.

david-everett-strickler-196946-unsplash.jpg

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

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