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Profile: Harry Byrd
Harry Byrd was a participant or observer in the following events:
Senator Strom Thurmond (right) supervises the typing of an early draft of the document that will come to be known as the ‘Southern Manifesto.’ [Source: Strom Thurmond Institute]A hundred and one congressmen, mostly conservative Southern Democrats, sign a document forwarded to President Eisenhower that becomes known as the “Southern Manifesto.” The document, formally entitled “The Declaration of Constitutional Principles,” is prompted by the recent Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision mandating the desegregation of American public schools, and is designed to pressure wavering Southern lawmakers into defying the Court’s decision as part of what researcher Tony Badger will later call “the massive resistance strategy so passionately advocated by the conservatives.” It is read aloud on the floor of the Senate by Walter George (D-GA), and was originally conceived by Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC) with the assistance of his colleague Harry Byrd (D-VA), though the final version was tempered by a rewrite overseen by Senator Richard Russell (D-GA). The “Manifesto” declares that in certain instances, states are free to ignore federal laws and court decisions such as Brown v. Board. The document declares the Court decision an attempt to “substitute naked power for established law,” calls it “a clear abuse of judicial power,” and says that the states can and must defy the Court’s decision in the interest of establishing the rights of the states against the federal government. The principle of “separate but equal” treatment of white and black Americans, codified in an 1849 case and upheld by the 1896 Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, is, the signers state, “the established law of the land” and cannot be overturned by the current Court. It is up to the states, not the federal government, to determine if and when they will desegregate their separate school systems. Far from mandating equal treatment, the signers state, the Brown decision “destroys the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races,” and “has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.” The “judicial encroachment” of the decision must be resisted by “any lawful means,” they write. The signers conclude, “Even though we constitute a minority in the present Congress, we have full faith that a majority of the American people believe in the dual system of government which has enabled us to achieve our greatness and will in time demand that the reserved rights of the States and of the people be made secure against judicial usurpation,” and ask their supporters not to give in to the “agitators” determined to sow chaos and disorder in the name of desegregation. [US Senate, 3/12/1956; Time, 3/26/1956; Badger, 4/1997]
Disparate Group of Non-Signers - Cambridge University scholar Tony Badger will later write of the Southern lawmakers who refuse to sign the document, “The evidence from Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and North Carolina highlights the diversity of political opinion among the non-signers—from New Deal liberal to right-wing Republican ideologue—and the disparate sources for their racial moderation—national political ambitions, party loyalty, experience in the Second World War, Cold War fears, religious belief, and an urban political base.” [Badger, 4/1997]
Thurmond Calls NAACP 'Professional Racist Agitators,' Says Southern Whites Are Nation's 'Greatest Minority' - After the reading, Thurmond delivers a far less measured television address, calling the organization that brought the original lawsuit, the NAACP, a group of “professional racist agitators” and saying: “All of us have heard a great deal of talk about the persecution of minority groups. The white people of the South are the greatest minority in this nation. They deserve consideration and understanding instead of the persecution of twisted propaganda.” After his speech, one Georgia woman praises Thurmond’s “courage and wisdom,” and asks: “Wouldn’t it be possible to remove much of the Negro population from the South? I sincerely wish that this might be done, and would be glad to even contribute personally to the expense of such a plan.” [Cohodas, 1993, pp. 284-300]
Counterattack in Congress - In the following days, a succession of Northern Democrats lambast the manifesto on the Senate and House floor, and none of the signatories rise to speak in its defense. Wayne Morse (D-OR) says the document advocates nothing less than the “nullification” of the federal government, and if taken to its logical conclusion, the dissolution of the United States into 50 disparate entities. “If the gentlemen from the South really want to take such action,” he says, “let them propose a constitutional amendment that will deny to the colored people of the country equality of rights under the Constitution, and see how far they will get with the American people.” [Time, 3/26/1956; Cohodas, 1993, pp. 284-300] One Southern senator says shortly after its reading, “Now, if these Northerners won’t attack us and get mad and force us to close ranks, most of us will forget the whole thing and maybe we can pretty soon pretend it never happened.” [Time, 3/26/1956] The “Manifesto” heralds a split in the Democratic Party, between conservative, segregationist “Dixiecrat” Southerners and the moderate-to-liberal remainder of the party’s lawmakers. Thurmond will lead an exodus of the segregationists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party shortly thereafter. [Cohodas, 1993, pp. 284-300]
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