Reading Joseph Bagley’s “The Politics of White Rights” (2018)

I think it is fair to say that most Southerners know the basics about the Civil Rights movement . . . but not much more. And certainly not much about how it led to our culture today. Going beyond the image of Rosa Parks’ arrest, the footage of police dogs in Birmingham, or images of state troopers attacking marchers in Selma, the greater story lies underneath the American consciousness. This period in our history, from the the mid-1950s through the late 1960s, was the precursor of the South that has existed from the 1970s forward, and Joseph Bagley’s 2018 book The Politics of White Rights: Race, Justice, and Integrating Alabama’s Schools explores what could be one of the most important aspects of that evolution: the political responses to movement.  While the nuances and complexities of the movement’s groups and individuals are tempting subjects for deeper study, the racist opposition is often reduced to one simple notion: what they did was bad and wrong, plain and simple. Though that summative conclusion about segregationists’ attitudes and actions may be valid, what underlies such a conclusion is not simple at all. In this book, Bagley’s in-depth of examination of Alabama’s particular situation in those years reveals what a tangled web it was.

Though most of Bagley’s book precedes the scope of Nobody’s Home, which begins its exploration of the South in 1970, the first five chapters (of six and an “Epilogue”) cover the back story about why 1970 is so integral. At the dawn of a new decade, it was the Swann ruling that altered the tenor of school integration and marked the end of a fifteen-year foray into every evasive tactic that opponents could come up with. With Swann, what would later be summed up as “busing” commenced— effectively: stop the political games and integrate the schools. Bagley’s sixth and final chapter discusses this period in Alabama from 1970 through 1973, then the “Epilogue” carries the reader on a tour de force through the years when we’ve felt the effects: 1973 through 2017.

Bagley begins his “Introduction” with the late Solomon Seay, Jr. who was a key attorney in Alabama’s movement for Civil Rights. Seay was the son of a prominent minister and later a law partner to Fred Gray and Charles Langford. The opening pages provide a primer for an understanding of Seay’s role, including his representation of plaintiffs involved in the landmark Lee v. Macon case. (Public school teachers in Alabama will recognize this case from the annual training module.) Then, after apprising his readers that “by the 1990s, Jim Crow was dead, and the pillars of white privilege were becoming harder to see,” Bagley shifts into his main thesis:  “A new strategy had been tested, matured, and refined. It was an ethos and a philosophy of power, and it produced results designed to withstand the scrutiny of the law.” In the book, we learn about Alabama’s “color-blind politics” and “color-masking,” about “pupil placement,” about often-heard terms like “freedom of choice” and “law and order,” and about the two “Lid Bills,” all of which have their roots in Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights resistance. 

What we read in the first five chapters – pages 12 through 179 of a 234-page text – is a blow-by-blow account of multiple political boxing matches repleted with punching and counterpunching, known-downs and comebacks. Most Americans – I would hope – know about the Brown v Board decision from 1954, but its complexities are lesser-known. In chapter one, readers will find that Brown was not simply one case with one plaintiff versus one defendant, but a group of cases combined under one umbrella for the sake of managing issues that were similar within an effective use of the courts’ resources. Further, we see that most Southern states initially turned their backs on the ruling.  Bagley writes:

Few whites in Alabama believed that the Brown v Board  of Education decision would have any meaningful impact there. The court had declared legally mandated segregation in education unconstitutional, but this ruling was the “law of the case,” most reasoned, not the “law of the land.” It therefore only applied to the several school districts directly involved in the litigation, not to the entire South. 

Thus, Civil Rights activists, attorneys, and some black families moved forward with the understanding that the road would be rocky, not smooth. As Citizens Councils formed, school districts were redrawn to ensure that black children went to school together and white children went to school together. Here, “pupil placement” comes into play. Under this concept, school system leadership could decide whether any given student was able, intellectually and developmentally, to keep up in any given school. Of course, black schools had been long underfunded and black children underserved, so this early mechanism of resistance functioned to separate children on the basis of achievement— black students were certainly not prepared to do work on the higher level in a white school, so why set them up for failure, right?

During this period, we also see the roots of the “law and order” ideal. Another from the we-only-want-what’s-best playbook, the catchphrase “law and order” was meant to combine the righteousness of good citizenship with the probably-apparent notion that integrated schools would experience some level of racial violence. That violence might come in the form of angry white adults in the schoolyard trying to prevent the enrollment of black students, or it might come in the form of playground fistfights when the n-word starts flying. Nonetheless, this now-common phrase was invoked by segregationists to say, Hey, let’s just keep the peace by not going through with this, okay?

Once again, though the Brown ruling in May 1954 might seem like a simplified one-time thing, it was actually an evolving situation that would soon have new companions and new challenges. As Southern resistance became clear, continued rulings on new and existing filings and appeals were issued, and those can be referred to as Brown II. In Alabama, a Pupil Placement Law was passed, giving local leaders those tools described above while “it avoided words like ‘race.'” There were also the Briggs dictum” from a court in North Carolina and countermeasures like the Boutwell Freedom of Choice Plan in Alabama. The latter “disestablished compulsory public education by removing any pertinent language in the state’s constitution, and it gave the legislature the authority to abolish public schools. It made school official judicial officers, in order to make them, in [Albert] Boutwell’s words, ‘immune from personal liability lawsuits and harassment from radical agitators.’ Finally, it gave the legislature the authority to require the state’s attorney general to defend suits brought against any boards of education.” In short, the prominent Birmingham businessman led the effort to evade integration and gave both local and state officials the tools to fight it together. (To be clear, however, the total closure of public schools was never a popular option, to whites or to blacks.)

As chapter one commences, Bagley discusses the NAACP and introduces his reader to Birmingham’s forceful activist Fred Shuttlesworth, then in the final sentence of the chapter, here comes George Wallace. Chapter two, “Our Most Historical Moment,” covers the years 1962 and 1963, and on the first page, the Wallace narrative appears:

Wallace wanted to exploit fears, even if it meant making promises he could not keep. [ . . . ] These were the stakes: enslavement by the federal government, dilution of the white race, and the upturning of southern society. It was whites’ duty to “sound the drum” and to battle to prevent this.

Echoing the rhetoric of the Civil War, this now-mythic narrative harkens back to the Civil War and should still sound familiar even today. If not, consider this, too: to end his opening section, Bagley provides a quote from Wallace, “God has placed us here in this crisis. Let us not fail in this, our historic moment.” 

By this time, in 1962 and 1963, the Civil Rights movement was in full bloom. Bagley’s explanation moves us forward from the period where it probably seemed like the inevitable could be avoided or outflanked.  After the Little Rock Nine, the Sit-Ins, and the Freedom Rides, the federal government had gotten more involved, and George Wallace had hardened the rhetoric into a stance of all-out defiance. However, many whites in Alabama were unsure about following Wallace’s hard-line example. He may have made his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” but for less-powerful local officials in sparsely populated counties, it was a matter of being wedged between a fiery and vehement governor and a cadre of fully empowered attorneys from federal agencies. Now, because of those pressures, things began to get messy. Some whites preferred the slightly but not terribly painful (to them) option of token desegregation, allowing a few black students into white schools to put an end to the furor. Others began to create county-level private school associations that fundraised to form private schools that would not have to adhere to rulings about public schools. A small number of brave black students enrolled in previously white schools, only to find them boycotted by whites and the hallways and classrooms mostly empty. (I say brave, because during this period, the notorious bombings and violence in Birmingham were occurring, and public gestures and statements by angry whites indicated that that violence would become commonplace.) 

Chapter three goes on to the mid-1960s. Bagley opens the chapter by referring to Lee v. Macon as a “vortex” that had led to many more court filings from many different parties. But what was the effect? We read, “About 1 percent of the South’s children were attending desegregated schools. In Alabama, it was .004 percent.” Ten years into it, the familiar players are still going at it, and others have joined in, too. One small town mayor named James “Kayo” Rea tried to avoid integration by declaring his high school’s maximum fire-code capacity to be the exact number of white people learning and working there.  When that did not work, the local water treatment plant mysteriously caught on fire, and he closed the school by declaring it a fire hazard. In this chapter we also see the fruition of Alabama’s attempt at a “tuition grant law,” which would divert public school money to (all-white) private schools. This law provoked litigation from various federal entities, and it was declared unconstitutional. Its proponents would later realize through court rulings that, by accepting state money for their private school, it would actually end up putting their school under the auspices of public education, which would negate the whole (racist) purpose of creating the schools in the first place.

By 1964 and 1965, other developments had also come about. Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in 1964, and because the violence had escalated, his Justice Department and Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare (HEW) were more active than ever. Also, after voting against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater had Southerners looking toward the Republican Party for political answers, especially since Democrat George Wallace had consistently failed to deliver on his strong pronouncements. Then, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a new law that gave whites an opening: “freedom of choice.” Though it was meant to provide a pathway for black students to attend better-resourced white schools, embittered whites saw its potential for saying, I don’t want to go to this school, I want to go to that one. But that law struck a heavy blow to segregationists, because it enshrined the federal government’s ability to cut off federal monies to any school district that did not provide and implement an approved desegregation plan, using Form 441. George Wallace, of course, told the state’s school leaders to refuse, but in poor areas, that just was not feasible. A few rural counties held out for a while, but ultimately, the disappearance of money from the budget proved too great an obstacle to surmount. In this chapter and the next, Bagley does a good job of telling local stories in context of their actions related to this scenario. 

In chapter four, which covers the years 1966 through 1968, Bagley bluntly describes the myths and narratives that fueled the opposition to the Civil Rights movement. In discussing a  court hearing where Fred Gray was questioning the state schools superintendent Austin Meadows, he asked Meadows about a statement that he released defending segregation as the natural order of life on Earth. The statement was thinly veiled and somewhat absurd, even causing the judges at the hearing to chuckle during Meadows’ testimony. Bagley writes, 

Just below the surface of the supposedly innocuous statement – which the court would later call a “racist parable” – lay the same white fears that had animated segregationist resistance since the Citizens’ Councils had organized. Desegregation was abhorrent to God because it would lead to miscegenation, which would emasculate white men and ultimately lead to the destruction of Western civilization. If whites did not band together, they would be overrun by blacks. It was their moral obligation to defend segregation, provided they observed law and order in doing so. 

Many of the legal tools to thwart school integration were being toppled by litigation, and integration was beginning to occur. However, the assumed problems were occurring, too. White students were often being at least unkind and at worst violent toward their new black classmates. No white students were choosing to attend black schools. Groups and counter-groups were forming to articulate  various forms of change or redress. One new argument was over whether disallowing segregation was enough— did the slow and uneven progress mean that it was necessary to mandate integration? For a moment, there was a slight reprieve from George Wallace’s antagonism, as he had his ailing wife Lurleen elected in his place, then after her death the slightly more moderate Albert Brewer held the state’s top office for a few years. Yet, it did not stop altogether. In September 1967, the legislature passed the Teacher Choice Act, which stated that students and families could choose teachers of their own race. If school choice had failed, now the effort was diverted to teacher choice. (The state’s two segregated teachers unions were also under pressure to integrate, so this was one more front on which that battle was fought.) At the end of this chapter, Bagley tell us:

Segregationists had fought token desegregation head-on and lost. Violent resistance, economic reprisal, and even lawmaking had all failed. It appeared to some that it was time to learn from the enemy. They had already begun to mold the civil rights movement’s strategic focus on constitutional individual rights into a rationale for continuing massive resistance— moving beyond freedom of choice meant deprivation of the individual freedoms of white parents and students. And they had begun arming themselves with the tactics of the nonviolent movement for black equality— protest marches and jail-ins. All that remained was to steal the rhetorical flourish.

So, what next? In chapter five, “Depths of Disillusionment,” about 1968 through 1970, Bagley apprises the situation of defeated whites who wanted to “associate with those of their own choosing.” He assesses the “vulnerability of white privilege” and the post-Civil Rights whites’ “desperate need to embrace tokenism.” But the myriad court cases had determined that “freedom of choice plans being implemented would fail to meet the standards for ‘working’ plans” that led to integration. Around the state, tensions were high and took various forms. In larger cities, like Birmingham, whites looked to outlying suburbs where school districts would encompass only those like themselves. In integrated schools, “interracial fights were common,” and it was typical that black students would be seen as the aggressors and, thus, punished. 

By this time, the politics had changed, in part because some of the leading figures had changed. Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, and Albert Brewer became Alabama’s governor after Lurleen Wallace’s death in 1967. A whole slew of state laws and local policies failed, so the court rulings and other mandates were no longer a shock to the system, but were still unpopular among reticent and resistant whites. In mounting his re-election campaign for 1970, George Wallace realized that “desegregation disproportionately affected poorer whites,” and he planned to use that fact to his advantage. On the other side, Albert Brewer’s re-election would center on a more “New South” approach by trying to convince Alabamians that Wallace had drawn the federal scrutiny on the state, so it was a bad idea to invite him to lead the state again. Brewer sought to reduce the flames rather than stoke them. As Bagley puts it, “And he lost.”

Chapter six brings the reader into the scope of Nobody’s Home, in “Swann Song, 1970 – 1973.” Despite the fact that school integration was progressing the late 1960s, George Wallace returned to office with his defiant attitude. But it was another collective case far from Alabama and far from his purview that would hit him hard and right between the eyes: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The shenanigans had continued all over the South, and among the tactics were massive, organized efforts at crosstown enrollment using school-choice options and subversive policies about not issuing textbooks or other equipment to any students attending a school they were not assigned to. In Alabama, the number of “segregation academies” was also growing exponentially: in 1965, there were thirty-four; in 1970, there were 109. The Alabama Private School Association, which was affiliated with the Citizens Council, recognized a number of these private schools, but Bagley acknowledges that there were even more that were not recognized but still operating. These factors were coupled with the rulings to close historically black schools whose facilities were in bad shape or whose faculties were untrained, so people of both races were getting angry and frustrated as they saw the schools that had long been the center of their communities now gone. 

Though it was not an Alabama case, Swann was meant to integrate school populations in a somewhat forceful manner, using school zone assignments and busing to answer “white flight,” resistant local and state officials, and obfuscation using school choice. This well-intentioned move had side effects though. In addition to being removed from their community’s schools, which had traditions that went back generations, black students were often sent to white schools with traditions linked to the Confederacy. Bagley writes about school bands playing the song “Dixie,” which prompted black students to protest its inclusion. Likewise, many black athletes were taken from schools where they were stars on their teams and put into schools where white coaches and teammates would not give them playing time. Many white schools also cancelled dances, like homecoming or prom, and proceeded with segregated events planned and organized by parents. 

This integrated situation, coupled with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, caused another kind of concern over schools and their funding. In 1970, Alabama saw its first black legislators since Reconstruction. With newly empowered black voters able to elect school board members, council members and commissioners, and legislators, politically astute Alabamians understood that this meant that black leaders would have a voice in education funding and local taxation . . . and in school and system policies . . . and in disputes that occur at or around schools . . . and  in the names of schools and their team mascots . . . This realization led to the passage and ratification of the Lid Bill in 1974. This oddly named bill capped the level of taxation that local governments could charge. What this meant was: in areas with a small number of wealthier whites and a large number of poorer blacks, it became impossible for the black majority to vote in politicians who would tax the wealthier whites (whose kids were in private school) to fund the majority-black public schools they had fled. This sinister move was initiated by George Wallace in the early 1970s, but the long and complex process of legislating in Alabama meant that it was not ratified for several years. About this socio-political narrative, Bagley writes,

The politics of white rights allowed those who benefited from all of this to see it as the natural consequence of their rise within the middle class. They had begrudgingly and belatedly accepted freedom of choice tokenism and no longer openly lamented the fall of Jim Crow. As they saw it, they were not racists. They had black friends and colleagues. Their children attended school with a few black students. They did not discriminate. So they maintained that their trek to the suburbs was not made possible by white privilege. It was the result of their hard work and the exercise of their right to distance themselves from the problems inherent in the ghettoization of poor blacks, a process for which they bore no responsibility.

The “Epilogue” begins by noting that, in 2014, 340 school systems nationwide had not been effectively integrated and were still under court order— forty-six of them were in Alabama. That’s 13.5% of the nation’s noncompliant school systems in one state. What follows is a torrent of information that would blow past most readers, covering forty years in less than twenty pages. However, reading The Politics of White Rights, especially the “Epilogue,” was particularly personal to me. I started school in 1979, going to a public school first then to a private school and a magnet school later. After graduating in 1992, I went to two colleges in my hometown, then later was an Alabama public school teacher from 2003 through 2022. As Bagley describes the working-class whites going to school alongside black students, as he discusses segregation academies, as he mentions magnet schools, he was putting my experiences into context. As the “Epilogue” continues, bringing up No Child Left Behind, the Alabama Education Association, and the “bait and switch” that gave us the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), I lived and worked within all of it.  In the AAA’s way of declaring all schools in the bottom ten percent to be “failing,” I saw our local schools on the list. He also describes what happened in a couple of rural counties, whose situations were different from mine. Ultimately, Bagley returns to Solomon Seay, Jr. – the man he started with – and writes about the attorney’s hope for the future but also his acknowledgment that real racial justice would never be seen in his lifetime. In that final portion, he names “the weight of history, the power of narrative, and the stubbornness of human nature” as factors that will impede progress here in Alabama. 

Sometimes, I hear people say, Why don’t we just move on? All that is over, in the past. It is not over, not at all. Today, the news media calls it the “culture wars” and pushes a narrative that our contention is issues-based and color-less (except for red and blue). Not hardly. Joseph Bagley is writing about the roots of us-and-them in a society where laws no longer force people into certain places and roles. The Politics of White Rights is detailed account of the efforts made to create a new version of an old system, to put the old spirit in new flesh.  And the narrative that supports these efforts using terms like freedom, choice, and law-and-order are very American in their flavor. The beliefs that are then created by that narrative employ “color-blind” thinking that serves to contradict competing narratives about systemic racism and historic inequality. But it’s still there. We heard it in October 2022, when Alabama’s senator Tommy Tuberville proclaimed at a Trump rally, “They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.” And people cheered. 

What Joseph Bagley describes in his book also shows itself as a pattern in Alabama politics. In chapter five, he alludes to post-Civil Rights state legislators with this attitude about the laws they pass: “I don’t know just how the bill will stand up in court, but the least we can do is try.” While the hot-button issue of the 1960s was racial integration, other issues have arisen since and been given the same treatment. A popular narrative garners support for the enshrinement of some belief, which in turn leads state legislators to meet the demand by passing a law to enshrine it. Then the courts dismantle the law. As one example, the state’s controversial Immigration Law was passed in 2011 for the purpose of addressing a perceived crisis.  By 2013, Attorney General Luther Strange admitted that the law had lost in court so many times that it was no longer worth defending. But political candidates keep making promises  to keep the boogeyman du jour at bay. In the 1960s, it was about race. These days, our would-be protectors will stop people from killing babies and keep transgender kids off of sports teams and out of bathrooms. But no matter what comes and goes, one promise always remains constant: to keep the federal government out of our business, so we have the freedom to make our own choices and preserve law and order here in Alabama.

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