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  • The Best Defense Is a Good Offense:The Stennis Amendment and the Fracturing of Liberal School Desegregation Policy, 1964–1972
  • Joseph Crespino (bio)

In December 1969, Governor John Bell Williams of Mississippi, one of the most notorious southern segregationists, proposed a $1 million program financed by the Mississippi state legislature to file school desegregation suits in northern states. "For fifteen years we have been on the defense," Williams said. "Now we are going on the offense."1 Williams's campaign was just one example of an odd but familiar trend that had emerged by 1970. Some of the most determined southern segregationists became enthusiastic supporters of northern school desegregation. In January 1970, the attorneys general in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida announced plans to intervene as friends of the court in a Pasadena, California, school desegregation case.2 In February 1970, the governor of Louisiana appealed to citizens of his state to fund a nationwide television campaign calling for equal treatment between northern and southern schools.3 Most important, that same month, U.S. Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi carried the fight to the floor of the Senate. He introduced an amendment to a federal education bill that called for equal desegregation efforts in both the North and the South, regardless of whether the segregation resulted from state action or residential patterns. Stennis complained that the federal government was pursuing a regional desegregation plan. His ostensible goal was to bring about "one uniform policy" on school desegregation, "applicable nationwide." But the real motivation, which almost every southern official conceded, was the hope that accelerated desegregation in the North would spark a broader, national backlash against school desegregation. [End Page 304]

These efforts would likely have been ignored as just another segregationist ploy without the intervention of Abraham Ribicoff, U.S. senator from Connecticut and a former secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the Kennedy administration. Ribicoff gave a rousing speech on the Senate floor vindicating southern claims and supporting the Stennis amendment. He charged his fellow northern liberals with "monumental hypocrisy" in pursuing vigorous enforcement of southern desegregation while ignoring the racial separation between all white suburbs and all black inner cities. For too long, Ribicoff believed, liberals had led the attack on southern segregation while ignoring the glaring and growing racial divide in American metropolitan areas.

The public debate that ensued over federal school desegregation policy was unlike any that had taken place in the sixteen years since the Brown decision.4 It was, by one account, the first suggestion of "a crack in the forces which, since the Supreme Court ruling on school segregation . . . have sought to integrate Southern schools."5 The controversy provides a window into a critical but underexamined moment in the history of federal school desegregation policy in the United States.6 Despite the wealth of literature on school desegregation in the United States, we know less than we should about the opponents of school desegregation.7 Southern politicians who led high-profile campaigns of massive resistance and working-class northerners who opposed busing are familiar enough, but the legal and legislative arguments that southern segregationists made against federal school desegregation policy are less well known.

It is important to understand these positions, particularly as the interests of southern segregationists converged in such strange ways with the interests of more far-reaching civil rights supporters such as Ribicoff. The odd coupling of 1970 resulted from several developments. Brown applied to schools with a history of de jure segregation. It left unclear whether de facto segregation—or segregation that resulted from nongovernmental factors such as housing patterns—was also unconstitutional, a question that the Supreme Court would not rule on until 1973. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which greatly expanded the federal government's role in public school desegregation, included language that limited the bill from attempting to correct "racial imbalances," language intended to refer to de facto segregation. At the time, liberal and more moderate supporters of civil rights were divided over how and to what extent the government should move against de facto segregation. Southern segregationists recognized this tension during the negotiations that took place over the 1964 Civil Rights...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 304-325
Launched on MUSE
2006-07-26
Open Access
No
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