Virginia: Segregation Showdown

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Prince Edward County, Va., a tobacco and wood-pulp center in the heart of the Old Dominion, is the only county in the U.S. without a single operating public school. The county was one of the localities involved in the original Supreme Court desegregation case, and for nearly two years, local officials have kept the 20 Negro and white schools closed in defiance of the court order. Last week the Department of Justice filed a motion in Richmond to force the rebellious county to reopen its schools on an integrated basis.

Specifically, the department asked Federal Judge Oren R. Lewis to: 1) prohibit the State of Virginia from making public funds available to public schools anywhere in the state until Prince Edward County complies with the court order; 2) forbid the use of public funds for the maintenance of "private" schools in the county; and 3) force state and county officials to maintain a public-school system in Prince Edward. The suit, marking the first time the U.S. Government has sought to enter a desegregation case as a plaintiff, was a sharp reminder of the Kennedy Administration's determination to enforce its civil rights program.

Ever since the public schools were closed, in June 1959, most of Prince Edward's 1,500 white students have been attending "private" schools, taught by former public-school teachers and financed by public funds, private contributions and tax rebates. The 1,700 Negro children were offered a similar, segregated system, but turned it down. Many of them attend privately run "training centers," but these offer little more than organized play; most of the county's Negro children have received no education for two years.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of Virginia's white leaders was loud and clear. "The gallant little county," cried Senator Harry Byrd, "is fighting against great odds to protect a principle it believes to be right." Governor J. Lindsay Almond sought to reassure Virginians that Attorney General Kennedy was not trying to close all schools in the state, but only to reopen Prince Edward County's schools.