Why History–And Editorial Pages–Matter

What’s the most important book about Richmond and its history published in the past twelve months? I’ll give you a hint: the book has been favorably reviewed in the nationally read Boston Review, and the author has been designated by the History News Network as one of the nation’s “Top Young Historians,” but no review of nor reference to the book has yet appeared in the Times-Dispatch.

The book in question is Matthew D. Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. Lassiter, a historian at the University of Michigan, describes and critically assesses how the suburbanization of the 1960s and 70s affected local politics in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond.

The crucial issue in that history, of course, is race, and in particular how whites responded to the reality of the end of formal racial segregation and the incorporation of African-Americans into the political process. Lassiter skillfully tells the story of how Richmond failed to create a regional political structure based on the idea that we’re all in it together, and instead opted for a system which perpetuates rather than alleviates racial inequalities.

The central episode of that failure, depicted at length in Chapter 11 of Lassiter’s book, was the busing crisis of the early 1970s and the Richmond region’s refusal during those years to create a system of effectively integrated public schools, achieved through the “consolidation of urban and suburban school systems.”

Lassiter gives particular attention to the role Richmond’s local newspapers played in defeating integration proposals. “In an extension of their enthusiasm for defiance during the massive resistance era of the 1950s, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader maintained a shrill tone and encouraged an obstructionist stance throughout the three-year busing crisis. Expressing open hostility toward the black plaintiffs and the federal courts, the Times-Dispatch repeatedly invoked a doomsday scenario of coercive integration where ‘thousands of children ould be hauled away from their own neighborhoods to strange schools in strange communities miles away.’ . . .

The editorial pages launched a campaign of personal vituperation against [Governor] Linwood Holton after his refusal to exploit the crisis, which the Times-Dispatch attributed to the governor’s solicitation of black voters for the Republican party. The News Leader actively participated in the antibusing movement by circulating its own freedom of choice petition, signed by 29,122 readers and delivered to the steps of the Supreme Court by editor Ross Mackenzie and Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. . . . A community study of the Richmond crisis concluded that the editorial pages jointly created ‘an atmosphere of mass hysteria and defiance by fanning the flames of emotionalism and racial biogtry, which only served to poison race relations between blacks and whites at a time when understanding and mutual cooperation were desperately needed.'”

As Lassiter writes, the ultimate failure of efforts to create a unified metropolitan school system in Richmond “guaranteed an urban system debilitated by a fusion of race and class hypersegregation.” The disparity between Richmond public schools and those of the suburban counties, and the many consequences that follow from that disparity, remains the most fundamental structural problem facing the Richmond region.

Unfortunately, it’s also a problem that rarely gets acknowledged or addressed in the pages of the RTD in any meaningful way (other than in the columns of Michael Paul Williams). Indeed, there’s little in the pages of the RTD to suggest that the editorial board regards the educational disparities between its namesake city and the surrounding suburbs as a problem at all.

But there are one or two signs that just maybe the RTD is at least willing to revisit the legacy of white resistance to the civil rights movement. On October 3 and 10, the newspaper printed two letters regarding the massive resistance movement of the 1950s in Virginia, one by a Republican and one by a Democrat.

That’s a start. If the newspaper wants to go further and is wiling to take the difficult step of not only re-examing Virginia’s past but the paper’s own role in that past–and in creating the structure of inequality that characterizes the Richmond regions–they could do worse than taking the time to review Lassiter’s book or interview the author.

That would be a terrific step towards using the newspaper’s influence to address the sources of Richmond’s real problems, and might also mark a welcome turn away from the editorial politics of “personal vituperation” that still persist in good measure at the RTD. (Exhibit A: Sunday’s column by Mackenzie concerning Mark Warner’s withdrawal last week from the presidential race, which can only be characterized as a case study in ungraciousness.)

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Published in: on October 16, 2006 at 6:49 am  Comments (5)