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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How Local Church Of The Brethren Opposed Virginia's Massive Resistance To Integration

Past Governor and US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.
I owe special thanks to EMU classmate Kenneth Eshleman  for permission to use the following remarkable and untold story, excerpted and condensed from an unpublished 1964 research paper of his I recently found in my files, one he wrote for a Senior History Seminar course. Dr. Eshleman recently retired from teaching history and political science at Messiah College, Grantham, Pennyslvania.

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional, Virginia's Senator and ex-governor Harry F. Byrd, Sr., his son Harry F. Byrd, Jr., and other prominent politicians in the Commonwealth created a policy known as "massive resistance" in opposition to any form of racial integration in the commonwealth's public schools.

Under then Governor Thomas B. Stanley, a 32-member member commission came up with the "Gray Amendment" to the Virginia Constitution, one that would change the section that prohibited the use of public funds for private education and that would allow school boards to fund alternative segregated schools. A referendum was passed by both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates that had to then be approved by Virginia citizens. Meanwhile, even stronger legislation was passed that would actually cut off funds to local public schools that chose to integrate.

Some key members of the Church of the Brethren in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, led by Paul Bowman (president emeritus of Bridgewater College) and Pastor Robert L. Sherfy (then president of Harrisonburg's Ministerial Association) wrote letters to the editor and ran ads in the newspaper actively opposed the measure and urged County and City residents to vote against the ratification of the referendum. They were joined in this effort by the local Committee for Free Public Schools, led by two Madison College professors, one of whom, Rev. Ward McCabe, was also an Episcopal rector.

On the opposite side were such community leaders as Madison College president G. Tyler Miller, superintendent of Rockingham County Schools Wilbur S. Pence, State Senator George Aldhizer II, and the two local state delegates, Lawrence Hoover and Charles Wampler, who happened to be members of the Church of the Brethren (as was Wilbur Pence) but who went along with the amendment.

Remarkably, the efforts of Bowman, Sherfy and others prevailed as far as the outcome in this area was concerned. Rockingham turned out to be one of the few Virginia Counties that voted against the policy of massive resistance, along with Arlington, Fairfax, Charles City, Montgomery, Highland and Pulaski Counties. The City of Harrisonburg was joined by only three other cities in opposition, Radford, Waynesboro and Bristol.

A January 6, 1955, issue of the Daily News-Record quotes Dr. Paul Bowman as saying:

"There are those who say that this is not a moral issue... Let the church, they say, preach the gospel, baptize sinners, bury the dead and keep its hands out of business, politics and public education... (But) the church of Christ is concerned with every movement which affects human life and touches human character... Whatever contributes to the enrichment or impoverishment of the human mind is the business of the church... It is not enough for the church to preach the gospel of love and goodwill and do nothing about those instruments of society which breed ill will, mistrust and injustice."

In spite of these efforts here locally, Virginia nevertheless held out against fully integrating its schools for another ten years. But the voices of members of the Church of the Brethren and others, in hindsight, were clearly on the right side.

What lessons can we take today from their courage and persistence?
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