Divided we stood

1968 | In Richmond the battles over race would continue long after MLK's assassination

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

A century after the close of the Civil War, Richmond remained one of the most segregated cities in the country. Inside the city limits blacks made up close to 50 percent of the population, but they lived in their own neighborhoods, places I knew only by name: Church Hill (where Patrick Henry gave his famous speech), Fulton Bottom, Jackson Ward, and others. They had their own schools, churches, stores, and lives.

My family lived across the river in the county where the good schools were. Trips downtown were to the department stores or to the dentist. We would drive up Monument Avenue, a boulevard marked by massive statues of the heroes of the Civil War like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. If we skirted Church Hill or Fulton Bottom on those outings, we locked our car doors and rolled up our windows.

Richmond in 1968 had desegregated schools in name only. Although two Richmond lawyers had filed one of the five lawsuits that collectively became Brown v. Board of Education, it was in Richmond also that the term "massive resistance" was coined following the Supreme Court's landmark decision in 1954. For over a decade whites used the tactic to fight the order to integrate contained in Brown. Some schools closed rather than integrate. Then a pupil placement board was set up, giving the appearance that integration was happening when in fact students were assigned to schools based on color. Then came "freedom of choice," when the state gave parents the right to choose their schools. But of course no whites were choosing to send their children to inner-city black schools, and few black families had the courage or means to choose schools in the suburbs.

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Championing massive resistance as editor of the Richmond News Leader was James J. Kilpatrick, who went on to become 60 Minutes' resident curmudgeon. He faced off against Virginia News-Pilot editor Lenoir Chambers, who won a Pulitzer and is credited with tamping down violence by arguing for compliance with Brown. Threading his way through the tense public mood was Lewis F. Powell Jr., the Richmond school board chairman who presided over the city's resistance to Brown and soon would be tapped for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

With segregation woven into our residential makeup, it did not become thinkable that blacks could live in predominately white neighborhoods and attend predominately white schools until passage of the Housing Act in 1968 (also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968). That fall suddenly three new black students showed up in second grade. Until then we had only Henry.

Henry was funny and we loved him as a novelty, the way Alfalfa and Spanky loved Buckwheat. But it stayed in the classroom. I never thought about seeing Henry or one of my new black classmates in the grocery store, at church, at the movies, or at the swimming pool.

In 1968 the Kerner Commission, after studying the race riots of 1967, got it right: We lived "separate but unequal" lives. The separate part confused me. The unequal I rarely thought about. In 1968 Dr. Scholl's exercise sandals hit stores, and I bought a pair at the drugstore-red leather-with my own money, wearing them all summer. It did not occur to me that my counterparts in Church Hill weren't doing exactly the same thing.

If someone in 1968 asked me to describe blacks, I would have said they are better storytellers, better church-goers, and harder-working than whites. I didn't understand that we whites and blacks were still at war.

The conflict would break open in 1970, when federal district judge Robert Merhige, impatient with the sluggish pace of public-school integration, ordered busing of blacks and whites, not only among city schools but in the two surrounding counties as well. On the first day of school in 1970 the governor of Virginia escorted his white daughter to the predominately black John F. Kennedy High School, where she was assigned under the federal plan.

My parents held their breaths, knowing their daughter or son could be sent on an hour-long bus commute to unknown parts of the city. But neither I nor my brother were among those first students to be bused. At our nearby white high schools, black and white students showed up armed. Knife fights broke out during the first weeks. High-school students beat bus drivers-a kind of violence then unimaginable. Jennifer Turnage, a bused Church Hill resident, said, "When you stepped off a bus . . . you had police officers in full riot gear with shotguns and police dogs. You'd have KKK standing around."


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