How a 60-Year-Old Racist Manifesto Still Hurts American Education

Most people know of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in schools. But far fewer have heard of the “Southern Manifesto.”

“That’s why we thought it was important in the week that the Southern Manifesto will turn 60 to have a conversation,” said Gerard Robinson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “What can we learn from the past, how will it shape today, and what does it mean for our future?”

The Southern Manifesto was a petition introduced by Congress in 1956, two years after the Brown decision. The goal of the manifesto, and the goal of its 101 signers in Congress, was to appeal to local and parental rights in an attempt to stifle school integration and limit educational opportunity for black American students.

While it can be easy to relegate the Southern Manifesto to that bleak drawer of American historical bigotry, the legacy of the document is still hurting black Americans in their efforts to receive quality schooling today — although not in the way the signers of the document originally intended.

Speaking at a panel discussion hosted last week by the American Enterprise Institute, Robinson noted that while the Southern Manifesto was not law, it did signal the “ideological green light” for a massive resistance movement in the South, which fundamentally changed not only opportunities for African American students, but for white students as well.

“They called it a ‘declaration of constitutional principles,’” Robinson said. “And they said the Supreme Court was outside of its jurisdiction in telling states they had to integrate their schools. And they also said they would not tolerate it.”

Southern Democrats, lead by Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, head of table, background, map out a strategy for writing a jury trial amendment into the Civil Rights bill, July 26, 1957, in Washington.  Clockwise from left foreground:  James Eastland (Miss.); Strom Thurmond (S.C.); John Sparkman (Ala.); Sam Erwin (N.C.); Kerr Scott (N.C.); Allen Ellender (La.); Russell; Herman Talmadge (Ga.) John Stennis (Miss.); Olin Johnston (S.C.) Spessard Holland (Fla.); Russell Long (La.); Lister Hill (Ala.); Harry Byrd (Va.); and Willis Robertson (Va.), back to camera.  Meeting took place in Russell's office. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

A group of Southern Democrat Senators led by Richard Russell (D-Ga.), head of table, discuss their strategy to derail the Civil Rights Act in 1957. | Photo: AP

However, to paint the Southern Manifesto as nothing more than a racist creed would be inaccurate, according to John Day, a professor at the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Although the document was aimed specifically at keeping black children out of white schools, the wording of the document itself was far more nuanced. All racial language and appeals to bigotry were left absent. Instead, the document was a formal collection of legal arguments that called into question the constitutionality of the Supreme Court’s decision.

The most important takeaway from the Southern Manifesto is that this is when the term “school choice” first rose to prominence in the national dialogue.

Today, school choice is a common sentiment of conservative lawmakers in their aim to provide quality education opportunities for America’s underprivileged. But in the years following the Southern Manifesto, school choice was a battle plan for Southern whites to keep black kids out of white schools. By releasing the Southern Manifesto, white southern lawmakers essentially pivoted away from directly fighting the Brown ruling, instead attempting to minimize its impact. Giving parents “school choice” would allow them to opt-out of integrated schools, with vouchers being awarded to create white schools that were publicly funded but functioned as private schools in practice.

In hindsight, it is obvious that these attempts were motivated by bigotry but masked by legal arguments. And the Supreme Court at the time felt the same way. Following the Southern Manifesto and the push for “school choice,” the courts stepped in with a series of rulings that essentially nullified school choice and asserted judges’ power over Southern schools.

The motivation behind these rulings was to give black children a fair shot at the American Dream. But today those very same rulings are now hurting black Americans the most.

Today, school choice advocates are pushing to give black Americans more freedom when it comes to providing an education for their kids, Robinson says. Modern voucher programs serve as tickets to better schools for kids trapped in historically under-performing districts. In essence, the modern school choice initiative is fighting for the very same thing the Southern Manifesto was fighting against.

The motivation behind these rulings was to give black children a fair shot at the American Dream. But today those very same rulings are now hurting black Americans the most

But the courts have yet to catch up to this new way of thinking. Indeed, last year a collection of parents were unable to transfer their children out of an under-performing school district due to a 40-year-old desegregation order — an order that ironically was aimed at providing equal access to quality education.

Going one step further, a recent scholarship program in Louisiana, which attempted to give mostly poor, black students a chance at attending private schools if they were trapped in a poorly performing district, was challenged by the Department of Justice because it supposedly interfered with a 1975 desegregation court order.

Again, that desegregation order was born in an effort to provide black students with a chance at a good education, but now it is doing just the opposite.

“Laws once intended to provide opportunity for all sometimes now prevent students from receiving a quality education,” Robinson wrote.

“As we approach the 60th anniversary of the Southern Manifesto,” he added, “it’s important that those concerned with fulfilling Brown’s promise understand that reforming education requires a comprehensive approach — one that takes into account communities and the history surrounding them.”

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.