Fenwick and Virginia's Public School Desegregation

Stanley Plan for Schools is Criticized

The Washington Post.  June 30, 1954

State Senator Charles R. Fenwick was known throughout his career as “a man-in-the-middle who bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives.”  A seasoned lawyer at the nation’s second oldest patent law firm, former president of the University of Virginia alumni association, and veteran of the First and Second World Wars, Fenwick was first elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1940 and to the state Senate in 1947. An astute legislator who recognized the value of fostering consensus, Fenwick served on powerful legislative committees regulating health care, welfare, infrastructure, and finance—a rarity at the time for lawmakers representing Northern Virginia. Affiliated with the Democratic political machine led by former Virginia governor and U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd since the 1930s, Fenwick nevertheless periodically demonstrated considerable independence from the Byrd organization that was valued by his Northern Virginia constituents. He advocated borrowing to fund public education and transportation projects, diverging from Byrd’s strict “pay-as-you-go” fiscal views. In 1953, he unsuccessfully pursued the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor without Byrd’s sponsorship. Fenwick was also an outspoken opponent of the Byrd organization’s “massive resistance” campaign to prevent desegregation in Virginia’s public school following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.[1]

Although Fenwick was considered a moderate at the time, he did not support desegregation. Contemporaneous press reports quote Fenwick and his colleague from Arlington, Delegate Harrison Mann, as “firmly opposed to integration” of the public schools. Fenwick opposed both the drive for immediate desegregation of Virginia’s public schools, advanced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others, as well as the “massive resistance” campaign to stop every instance of desegregation, advanced by Byrd and his allies, including Governor Thomas B. Stanley. According to Fenwick, his principal objective was to prevent “enforced integration.”  He argued that legislative proposals he supported would afford Virginians an opportunity to “reduce the impact of mixing the races.”  Admitting he had “no idea what the final solution [was]” in 1955, Fenwick advocated for legislative proposals that would delay the “deliberate integration” of public schools in order to gain “time to get something better, and at the same time something constitutional.”  By 1956, Fenwick, along with Mann, promoted the notion that “voluntary segregation on the part of both races,” was the ultimate solution to the impasse.[2]

Unlike the proponents of “massive resistance,” Fenwick recognized that desegregation would occur in Virginia, particularly since Arlington and Norfolk were prepared to comply with Brown. He also realized that outright defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court by those advocating for “massive resistance” against any desegregation was unlikely to succeed. It would also harm Virginia’s school age children of all races and could provoke a more strident federal government response. Fenwick’s instincts would ultimately prove correct as federal and Virginia courts repeatedly struck down components of the “massive resistance” legislation; public school closures interfered with the education of underprivileged children of all races; and the Eisenhower administration, facing criticism at home and abroad, began to enforce desegregation orders of federal courts flouted by some state and local officials—most prominently, in 1957, with federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas.  An experienced attorney, Fenwick favored pursuing a nuanced political and legal strategy that respected the U.S. Supreme Court’s authority, but which capitalized on ambiguities in Brown to craft legislation that carefully avoided violating the Court’s dictates while limiting the effectiveness of its desegregation mandate.[3]

Announced on May 17, 1954, Brown consolidated five cases then pending in various federal courts, including a Virginia case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County.[4]  Overturning fifty-eight years of precedent, the Court’s unanimous decision in Brown ushered in decades of litigation as well as contentious political and social debate. Importantly, neither Brown nor a subsequent decision announced on May 31, 1955, identified as Brown II, offered guidance to lower courts about how desegregation would be achieved.[5] Concerned, in part, that opponents of integration would “resist and impede” enforcement of the desegregation mandate, the U.S. Supreme Court directed lower federal courts to implement desegregation “with all deliberate speed,” a phrase NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall said “meant S-L-O-W.”  Marshall’s concern was not misplaced. Professor Charles Ogletree, who traced the origins of this phrase from its origins in an ancient Greek proverb through to its usage in American political speech and jurisprudence, observes that the phrase “all deliberate speed” conveys using a careful and measured approach. It is consistent with President Lincoln’s admonition concerning emancipation that “[i]t will do no good to go ahead any faster than the country will follow.”[6]  The Court also recognized that the “complexities arising from the transition to a system of public education freed of racial discrimination,” which would “necessarily involve solution to ‘varied local school problems’ … [and] elimination of a variety of obstacles in making the transition,” necessitated methodical implementation.[7]


[1] “State Sen. Charles Fenwick Dies,” The Washington Post, February 23, 1969, 48. Charles R. Fenwick, “Senator Fenwick Objects,” The Washington Post, June 27, 1957, A-14. “C.R. Fenwick to Seek Seat in Va. Senate,” The Washington Post, February 9, 1947, M-6. “District Attorney Heads Va. Alumni,” The Washington Post, June 12, 1938, M-6.

[2] “Stanley Segregation Plan Faces New Opposition: State Senator Fenwick and Delegate Mann Join in Attack on Governor’s Proposal,” The Sunday Star, August 26, 1956, 1. Robert E. Baker, “Integration Battle Opens on Monday: Fenwick and Mann Propose Substitute for Stanley Plan,” The Washington Post, August 26, 1956, A-12. Charles R. Fenwick, “Middle-Road Approach Seen in Gray Proposal,” The Evening Star, December 22, 1955, 1. “Gray Plan ‘Not Final Answer,’” The Washington Post, December 16, 1955, 32. Charles R. Fenwick, “Virginia: Backward March,” The Washington Post, November 16, 1955, 10. Ralph Reikowsky, “Stanley Plan for Schools Criticized,” The Washington Post, June 30, 1954.

[3] “School Plan Explained by Gray Board Member,” The Evening Star (Maryland-Virginia News), December 13, 1955, A-20. “Virginia Session to Hear Stanley Plan Foes Today,” The Evening Star (State Edition), September 6, 1956, A-27. Alex Preston, “Assembly Gets New Plan for Assigning Pupils,” The Evening Star, August 29, 1956, 1. James R. Sweeney, ed., Race, Reason, and Massive Resistance: The Diary of David J. Mays, 1954-1959 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 34. Brian J. Daugherity, Keep On Keeping On: The NAACP and the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 50.

[4] Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[5] Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Brown II), 349 U.S. 294 (1955).

[6] Charles L. Ogletree, All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 10-11. In the same exchange Lincoln specifically references Caesar Augustus’s interpretation of the Greek proverb translated into Latin, “festina lente” or “make haste slowly.”  Ibid., 11.

[7] Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430, 299-301 (1968).

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