Brown VS. Brown: Desegregating Cobb
Hale Meserow’s novel Alabama’s Redemption is set approximately 10 years before the Brown vs. Brown decision. Now you can experience the quiet outrage and horror of of a black heroic veteran returning home to the segregated south.
The Brown vs. Brown Decision
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional and ordering public schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
This set off a firestorm, especially throughout the South where racial segregation had been a mainstay of society since the end of Reconstruction. Responses to Brown were similar across most Southern states, as laws and amendments were enacted to prevent Brown from being enforced. Yet sentiments were far from universal, and the response was different between counties and, more importantly, between generations.
Immediately on the heels of Brown, Georgia’s legislature passed a constitutional amendment allowing the governor to close the state’s public schools to avoid desegregation. In such an instance, the state would issue tuition vouchers for students to attend private schools. Furthermore, Gov. Herman Talmadge stated that any school district attempting to desegregate voluntarily would immediately lose all state funding.
But support for the amendment was not as unified as one might have expected given the racial climate of the time. Statewide, the amendment passed by only a small majority, finding most of its support in rural counties and the least support in counties containing larger urban and industrial centers. Voters in Fulton and Cobb, for instance, were decidedly against the measure.
This disparity was also reflected in the political rhetoric of the time. Talmadge denounced the Brown decision as a violation of states’ rights. His successor, Marvin Griffin, held the same opinion, and in 1958, Ernest Vandiver successfully ran for the office using the campaign slogan “no, not one,” meaning that not one black child would attend a white school on his watch.
But in Cobb, civic leaders conveyed a more even tone. Cobb School Superintendant Paul Sprayberry asked everyone to remain “calm, patient and resolute.” Marietta Schools Superintendant Shuler Antley stated that he would try to see things worked out “to the advantage of everyone concerned.”
To present the matter accurately, opposition to the state’s actions was driven less by belief that segregation was unjust and more by concern that shutting down the public school systems would be disastrous. In rural counties, where the quality of public education lagged miserably behind the rest of the nation, the prospect of school closure seemed far less of an ill than it did in places like Cobb, where prosperity had elevated educational quality.
Nevertheless, there were those who found it increasingly difficult to justify segregation in their own minds. In this regard, the Second World War had planted major seeds for change. Many white Southerners who had battled fascism in Europe began to reconsider the values that their own country practiced at home, and exposure to other cultures in Europe and the Pacific had broadened the world, both geographically and intellectually.
In this environment, the “wait and see” mentality in Cobb County gave way to flaring tempers as the more combative voices on each side began to square off. In January 1960, the Cobb chapter of the NAACP, under the leadership of the Rev. Jesse W. Cook of Zion Baptist Church, sent letters to both the Cobb and Marietta school boards asking that they detail their plans for complying with the Supreme Court’s order. This happening in the wake of lawsuits filed by the NAACP in Atlanta, many Cobb residents opposed to desegregation saw this as a precursor to legal warfare.
In March of that year, a group calling itself the Cobb County White Citizens for Segregation gathered at Sedalia Park Elementary School to discuss a strategy for bringing pressure to bear on both the public and the school boards. The group proposed a boycott on all business that would not join them in actively opposing desegregation, using the slogan “Trade at the Store with the ‘S’ on the Door.” The group publicized the boycott in two full-page ads in the Marietta Daily Journal.
To their credit, most of Cobb’s political leaders who were invited to the gathering declined. Notably present, however, was County Sheriff Kermit Sanders.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Ku Klux Clan staged a motor rally in support of the boycott, driving through much of Cobb County, demonstrating an alliance between (if not mutual membership in) the Klan and the White Citizens for Segregation. The Klan also made direct threats against business owners who would not support segregation.
These actions actually galvanized more moderate whites into opposing the extremist rhetoric and intimidation tactics of their neighbors. Two prominent women of Marietta, Ruth Scarr Inglis and Harriet Harris, both wrote forceful and eloquent letters to the editor of the MDJ denouncing the White Citizens for Segregation in the strongest terms. Among the younger generation, Edward Leiter, the son of an immigrant family who had fled Nazi Germany, spoke out against the Klan and in support of desegregation while still a high school student, although his parents were obliged to reign him in after discovering that insurance rates on the department store they owned were being raised due to threats made by the Klan.
These initial moves in opposition to the Klan (which had wielded considerable power in Cobb County in the early 20th Century) were indicative of two other changes brought on by the Second World War. First, veterans of that war, having survived horrific combat, were far more difficult to intimidate than their forebears had been. Second, thanks to the G.I. Bill, the children of the World War II generation broke down the elitist barriers and were the first to attend college in mass numbers. Indeed, it was largely the liberalizing influence of the university experience that helped the Civil Rights Movement cross over into white America.
On March 1, 1965, the Cobb County Board of Education voted 5 to 1 in favor of desegregation. Over the next five years, desegregation in Cobb County became a reality.
Much thanks for the information in this article is owed to Professor Thomas Allen Scott of Kennesaw State University.
The Marietta Patch