Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Melvin Patrick Ely


On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down one of its most important decisions in the twentieth century. Brown v. Board of Education ordered twenty-one U.S. states, including Virginia, to end racial segregation in their public schools.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a nationally-known African American civil rights organization, had led the legal campaign to bring about the Brown decision. After its victory, the organization focused on how to bring about the implementation of the decision in the South in order to effectuate school desegregation. In the later 1950s, the NAACP filed lawsuits in many southern states, including Virginia, where school boards had been unable, or unwilling, to comply. as the possibility of school desegregation grew, white southerners bitterly attacked the NAACP and proponents of integration. In Virginia this led to state-sanctioned investigations of the organization, among other things. Utilizing legislation passed by the state legislature, the governor of Virginia also closed public schools in several Virginia communities in the fall of 1958 to avoid desegregation. The following January, state and federal courts overturned the state's school closing laws, and in February 1959 initial school desegregation began in Virginia. Afterward, the state allowed token, or minimal, school desegregation in an attempt to both avoid judicial scrutiny but also maintain as much segregation as possible. In the 1960s the federal government demonstrated a renewed commitment to school desegregation, and both legislative and executive action pressured the southern states, including Virginia, to increase the amount of school desegregation taking place within their borders. In the late 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a series of new school desegregation decisions, starting with Green v. New Kent County (Virginia) in 1968, which sped up the desegregation process in the South.

This dissertation examines the NAACP, Virginia's political leaders, white liberals and moderates, and segregationists during this tumultuous time in Virginia's history. Outside of the desegregation of public education, the manuscript also considers the desegregation of higher education, public transportation and accommodations, the expansion of black voting rights and political activity, racial violence, and related civil rights issues. Blending social, legal, political, and African-American history, this dissertation seeks to shed new light on the Civil Rights Movement and white resistance to civil rights in Virginia and the South.



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