Legendary civil rights heroes Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson Jr. may be revered in modern Richmond, but a half century ago they were denounced by the Virginia General Assembly and proclaimed ethically challenged by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Actions that today qualify as brave and visionary — encouraging black parents to bring lawsuits challenging segregated public schools — were then deemed not only ill-advised, but also criminal by Virginia's political elite.
Even as Hill, Robinson and other lawyers in the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People were working to reconfigure America's racial landscape, they were forced to fight a rear-guard action to protect their own reputations and livelihoods, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On July 17 the University of Virginia Center for Politics holds a conference at the Virginia Capitol marking the 50th anniversary of the collapse of Massive Resistance to school integration. While former students, historians and others gather to recall those fateful days, it's worth illuminating a lesser-known and almost forgotten aspect of a notorious era.
The handiwork of the segregationists who dominated Virginia politics in the 1950s was not limited to laws prohibiting the mixing of white and black children in public schools. Borrowing from the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, which tarred suspected Communists, powerful state lawmakers also set out to vilify and, if possible, destroy the lawyers challenging the racial status quo.
At the same 1956 special session of the General Assembly that conceived a way to close schools rather than accept integration, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a set of seven laws targeting the NAACP lawyers. Five of the seven bills attacked the NAACP's methods in recruiting plaintiffs and financing litigation in cases such as the Prince Edward County school challenge, one of five lawsuits eventually combined into the historic school desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education.
The laws attacked various forms of “stirring up” or promoting lawsuits and required any organization raising money for racial litigation to register with the State Corporation Commission.
Lawmakers also created two legislative commissions to ferret out violations of the new laws — the Committee on Law Reform and Racial Activities, known as the Thomson Commission for its chairman, Jim Thomson of Alexandria, a brother-in-law and confidante of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., and the Committee on Offenses Against the Administration of Justice, dubbed the Boatwright Commission for Chairman John B. Boatwright Sr., a segregationist attorney from Buckingham.
Egged on by Byrd and then-Gov. Tom Stanley, delegates and senators set their sights on crippling the movement however possible: meeting behind locked doors, using hidden microphones to secretly tape unsuspecting witnesses and manipulating the courts in a failed attempt to obtain membership and donor lists of the NAACP and other pro-integration groups. If defending the constitutionality of separate schools for blacks and whites proved difficult, then discrediting those who recruited aggrieved parents and represented them in court would do.
Unimpeded by legal challenges and taken to their logical conclusion, the laws would have ended with disbarment proceedings and criminal prosecutions, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William J. Brennan noted in the 1963 decision that effectively put an end to the seven-year campaign to discredit Hill, Robinson and their associates.
“It was very crippling,” says Robert A. Pratt, chairman of the history department at the University of Georgia and the author of “The Color of Their Skin: Education and Race in Richmond Virginia 1954-89,” recalling the anti-NAACP laws. The demand for prominent civil rights lawyers to spend time throughout the late 1950s and early '60s defending their reputations in court “was a terrible distraction and it really was serious business. They hoped the legislative acts would be overturned, but they couldn't be sure.”
NAACP membership in Virginia shrank by about one-third in response to the laws and contributions fell, according to Pratt. The widespread fear, Oliver Hill told newspapers at the time, was that “intimidation, harassment and economic reprisals” awaited anyone revealed as an NAACP sympathizer.
Cognizant of their power to instill alarm, the legislative commissions scheduled hearings in localities across Virginia — Charlottesville, Arlington, Norfolk, Prince Edward County — where parents were challenging segregated schools. After several parents at a Charlottesville meeting told members of the Thomson Commission that they had unknowingly signed papers making them plaintiffs in school desegregation cases, the committee abruptly canceled additional testimony.
“The committee knows what it is trying to develop,” one commission member candidly told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “When it obtained information along the lines it wanted to develop, it didn't see any necessity to go any further.”
Armed with such half-baked evidence, subsequent reports to the General Assembly blasted the NAACP for “reprehensible” tactics, charged various offshoots of the organization with engaging in “the unauthorized practice of the law,” urged the Virginia State Bar to punish the offenders, and recommended that local commonwealth's attorneys launch legal proceedings against them.
Not everyone bought into the hysteria. David Scull, a printer and Quaker activist from Annandale, challenged the constitutional underpinnings of the Thomson Commission and refused to testify. Convicted of contempt, fined and ordered to a short jail term, Scull appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court rubber-stamped the conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court later threw it out.
Nor, for whatever reason, did the Virginia State Bar pick up on the admonition to discipline the NAACP attorneys. In 1959, two years after its first report, the Boatwright Commission complained that the state bar had spent $5,000 on a Jamestown ceremony commemorating the advent of the common law in the New World and $6,250 on a continuing legal-education program, but had yet to do its duty by “punishing those guilty of unprofessional conduct and those engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.”
After seven years of navigating state and federal courtrooms, the NAACP lawyers were absolved of wrongdoing by the nation's highest court. “A state may not, under the guise of prohibiting professional misconduct, ignore constitutional rights,” Brennan wrote in a 6-3 decision styled NAACP v. Button.
By then, the die had been cast in favor of integrated classrooms across Virginia. The Committee on Offenses Against the Administration of Justice issued its final report, and an ignominious chapter in Virginia history faded quietly away. S
For information on the conference “With All Deliberate Speed? Massive Resistance in Virginia,” which includes a keynote speech by former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, visit www.CenterforPolitics.org.