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A Bleak Moment in Virginia Political History:
Remembering Massive Resistance

The notable summer event of 2009 for the Center for Politics was the 12th Annual Virginia Political History Project conference at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on July 17th. Fifty years ago the Commonwealth took a decisive step in turning the page on one of the darkest periods of its history, as it dealt a crippling blow to the official institutional policy of "massive resistance" to the racial integration of its public schools. Schools in Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren counties, which had been closed by state officials who refused to adhere to the judicial mandates to integrate black and white students, were re-opened in 1959; thus began the long and difficult process of desegregating these educational institutions. Bringing together journalists and scholars, and students and activists of the era, this year’s Virginia Political History Project sought to illuminate the events that led up to that period in Virginia’s history and to examine what has happened since.

A group of former students who were denied access to education during Massive Resistance opened the conference with a stirring first panel. Panelists and audience members alike expressed emotion, shed tears, and remembered a troubled history. Panelist and former Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton recalled his fight against Massive Resistance and his work to heal the racial divide in the Commonwealth after the integration of schools. Upon entering the conference hall, a woman spontaneously shouted, "God Bless Governor Holton!" These sorts of interruptions were not really interruptions at all; they were frequent, they were welcome, and they were indicative of the passionate feelings that the conference evoked.

Many deemed the keynote address from former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected governor in the United States, as the high point of the conference. Wilder vividly reminisced about the progress Virginia has made since Massive Resistance. He also offered a warning to all in attendance, stressing that complacency can ruin the progress that has been made -- and that there is still much work to do.

"With the exception possibly of his Gubernatorial Inaugural Address, that was the best speech I’ve ever heard Governor Wilder give," noted Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato.

Among the additional panelists were the Honorable Leroy Hassell, the first African American Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, State Senator Henry Marsh and Delegate W. Ferguson Reid, two of the first African Americans to serve in the Virginia General Assembly and key players in the Virginia Civil Rights scene, University of Virginia history professor Dr. Paul Gaston, and Charlottesville civil rights activist Eugene Williams.

On this special day of commemoration, the old gathered to remember and the young gathered to learn. At the end of the day, attendees were speaking of the 12th Annual Virginia Political History Project conference as not only the highlight of the summer, but as one of the all-time highlights of the Center’s history.