Tennesseans Respond: Brown v. Board of Education

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

Today, May 17, marks the 65th anniversary of the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and determined “separate but equal” education services are unconstitutional.

Albert Gore, Sr. was newly elected to the Senate when the Supreme Court decision came down, and his office received a hearty stack of letters from Tennesseans expressing their views on the desegregation of public schools. Similar to other issues on race during the 1950s and 1960s, a majority of the constituents who sent letters to Senator Gore were against civil rights for black Americans.

CONTENT WARNING: The following letters contain racist language and thoughts. 

Transcriptions for these letters available here.

Gore’s Tennessee constituents often made accusations of communism and encroachment on states’ rights in response to the Brown v. Board ruling. Some Tennesseans also perpetuated the racist hypersexualization of black boys by writing to Gore that they feared what school integration would mean for their white daughters. Indeed, white supremacists have long used the protection of white womanhood as an excuse for violence and discrimination toward black Americans and other people of color–the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation exemplified this thinking.

Senator Gore’s views on school integration, influenced by his past experience as a school superintendent and law school graduate, slightly shifted in the span of a few years. In December 1953, Gore wrote to a constituent:

1984.076

Gore packing his belongs to move into his Senate office, January 1953. (Albert Gore, Sr. Papers)

“I have been reared to believe that it would be better for white children to go to white schools and be taught by white teachers…I still believe that is the best.”

He was also weary of pushing “too far, too fast” on civil rights and race relations issues, which he thought would cause more harm than good. He cited Nashville’s two black city council members as signs that the South was progressing at its own pace, and need not be ruined by any “dangerous provocation” from federal legislation or court decisions.

Following the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling in 1954, Gore was less forthcoming with his personal views in his responses to constituents. He urged Tennesseans to accept the court’s decision as “the law of the land,” but did admit that it would probably take some time to adjust and implement desegregation. He said, “We must find ways to progress in peace and harmony under the law.”

In March 1956, Gore distanced himself from Southern conservatives by not signing the Southern Manifesto, a document that attacked the Supreme Court for undermining states’ rights in the Brown decision and commended those southerners who intended to lawfully resist forced integration. Many Tennesseans wrote into Gore’s office upset with his decision to not align with these principles. In one letter dated March 28, Gore said that affixing his signature to the manifesto “would have been the easy and, at least for the moment, the politically appealing course of action.” Instead, he called the manifesto a “serious mistake” and declined to sign it because it would not “bring any improvement in a delicate and dangerous situation.”

The threat of white violence and backlash disrupted many efforts to integrate schools. In September 1956, in Gore’s own state of Tennessee, Clinton High School was the first public high school to undergo court ordered desegregation. The black students who integrated the school, often referred to as “The Clinton 12,” faced groups of hateful white people who spat on them and used racial slurs. Watch the video below from the National Education Association on the experiences of The Clinton 12.

 

What is the legacy of Brown v. Board today? It is an important historical event that continues to demonstrate its relevancy for present education issues. School desegregation is very much a contemporary history, especially for those school districts that took decades to even fully integrate. Currently, many scholars, journalists, civil rights activists, and educators have argued that American public schools are on the path to serious re-segregation. In 2014, PBS Frontline investigated the re-segregation of public schools. Using data from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, Frontline summarized some of the major issues in eight charts, which explain the damaging effects of re-segregation. Overall, integrated schools are better for students of every race; integration typically means access to better education resources, greater funding, greater cultural competency, and higher graduation rates. The legacy of Brown v. Board lives on in those parents and activists who continue to fight for equal education opportunities for all American children.

To research this topic and others in the Albert Gore, Sr.. Papers, please contact us at the Albert Gore Research Center.

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