Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

A new Southern strategy

School segregation in Florida long preceded Claude Kirk’s election in 1966. Ten years after the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling against 'separate but equal' schools, less than 3 per cent of Florida’s black students attended integrated schools. In Manatee County, which became the focus of the busing standoff, only 170 of 3,900 black students attended integrated schools in 1965Like many Southern school districts, the Manatee County school board implemented only token desegregation throughout the 1960s, with their attorneys fending off regular legal challenges from the NAACP. Manatee County ran out of legal options after Green v. County School Board (1968), where the US Supreme Court found 'freedom of choice' plans like those in Manatee to be insufficient tools for desegregation, and Alexander v. Holmes (1969), which denied further delays in Southern desegregation and replaced 'all deliberate speed' with a new standard that the 'obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools'. The Supreme Court, overturning the Fifth Circuit court and refusing a requested delay from the Justice Department, set the 'at once' deadline for Florida and five other Southern states as 1 February 1970.

Kirk joined Southern politicians like Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox and George Wallace in attacking this desegregation deadline, but he received the majority of the media attention. Kirk travelled to Washington DC twice in late January 1970, each time appearing at the Supreme Court and on ABC and CBS newscasts. In their reports on Kirk’s first visit, where he hand-delivered a request for a delay in the desegregation order, both stations quoted the governor’s statement that it would be 'financial and physically impossible' for Florida to meet the deadlineABC’s Stephen Geer noted that Kirk came to the Supreme Court to 'dramatize his extraordinary action'. Kirk returned to the Supreme Court four days later, to ask the court to declare that all school systems be held to the same school desegregation standards. 'The February 1 deadline will cause forced busing, which is unconstitutional, which is against the Civil Rights Act, which would cause fiscal irresponsibility, and therefore I will stand against forced busing now and in the future', Kirk told the reporters and camera crews gathered outside of the high courtKirk promised to go to jail to stop busing if necessary. 'I would feel I am going to jail for a philosophical cause', he argued, 'just as our prisoners in Vietnam are in jail for a philosophical cause.CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite described Kirk’s plea for a uniform national policy as part of a 'new southern school strategy'. Indeed, Kirk was not alone in calling for the North and South to be treated alike with respect to school desegregation policy. On the same day that Kirk made his second appearance at the Supreme Court, the attorneys general of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama announced plans to intervene as friends of the court in the Pasadena, California school desegregation case, with the stated goal of making sure that the same desegregation rules applied to Pasadena as to the Southern statesThe next month, US Senator John Stennis of Mississippi introduced an amendment to a federal education bill calling for common desegregation policies in both the North and South. Stennis’ motivation, historian Joseph Crespino argues, 'was the hope that accelerated desegregation in the North would spark a broader, national backlash against school desegregation'. While he did not comment publicly on the Stennis amendment, Kirk’s call for a uniform policy regarding desegregation also worked to make busing an issue that resonated nationally, before busing orders actually impacted most cities. The important difference was that, as a governor, Kirk was closer to the front lines of the busing battle and in a better position to plead that he and his state were the victims of unfair judicial orders and federal policies. And unlike President Nixon, who sought to avoid flare-ups on the busing issue, Kirk was well positioned to benefit from such controversies. As Nixon told his advisors in February 1970, 'There is no mileage in doing the right thing here, there’s only mileage for demagogues. There’s mileage for anybody who wants to be Governor, no mileage for somebody who has to be President…Kirk down in Florida…can emphasize the negative…maybe its okay for a candidate, not a President.' Television news cameras were eager to broadcast Kirk’s regular acts of defiance, in the process establishing busing as a national issue and Kirk as a key voice in this debate.

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