History, History Column

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Remembered

In 1964 China’s Mao Tse-Tung published his Little Red Book, Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s $947,000,000 War on Poverty began.  The North Vietnamese attacked two US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, three missing civil rights workers were found buried in a Mississippi earth dam, and the bipartisan Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was signed.

“The civil rights bill is the law of the land today,” The Alexandria Gazette wrote on July 3, 1964, “and civil rights groups immediately began testing whether the sweeping provisions against discrimination can break generations of racial barriers.”  The 10 Virginia members of the House of Representatives voted against the Civil Rights Act.

 The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was President Johnson’s “challenge to all Americans to [voluntarily] transform the commands of our laws into the customs of our land.”  In Virginia, despite ratification of the 24th Amendment, elements of the discriminatory 1902 election poll tax remained.

With Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896—the US Supreme Court’s separate but equal doctrine—black newspaper editors like Alexandria’s Colored Republican Magnus L. Robinson denounced racial discrimination.  Colored Republicans met “to devise means so the ‘Lily Whites’ of the South may not crowd [them] out…to petition [southern] negroes to unite [and] come back to first principles—human rights.”  Plessy remained Jim Crow law until Brown v. Board of Education in1954.

 Until the mid-1930s enterprising Alexandria blacks traveled to the District of Columbia for high school: to attend either Armstrong or Dunbar High Schools.  Samuel W. Tucker, born in 1913, bootlegged his Armstrong High School education.  Yet a white only high school stood within sight of his Alexandria home.

Samuel W. Tucker is a hero of both the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.  His father, real estate agent Samuel A. Tucker was a founding member of the Alexandria NAACP.  Like father like son except Samuel W. was a lawyer.

In 1930 Virginia had 2,391 male lawyers.  Of those, 57 or 2% were Negro.  S.W. Tucker graduated from Howard University in 1933, then studied law with Alexandria attorney Tom Watson.  He read his first law book at age 10, passed the Virginia Bar at age 20, and took his oath in 1934 in the same courtroom where, as a teenager, he had been tried for a crime.

At age 14, Tucker and his brother, Otto L. were arrested in Alexandria following confrontation over the right, or that claimed by a white woman, to a white only seat on an inter-urban electric trolley.  Their courageous protest preceded Montgomery’s celebrated Rosa Parks by 28 years.

In March, 1939, 27 year-old attorney S.W. Tucker accompanied retired black Army Sergeant George Wilson to Alexandria’s white only Kate Waller Barrett Library to request a borrower’s card.  When black access was denied Tucker filed suit against the city librarian, requesting a writ of mandamus in corporation court.  The Chicago Defender predicted the Jim Crow lawsuit would “reverberate.”

A few months later Tucker, using Gandhi’s model, recruited eleven, neatly-dressed, black neighborhood youths ages 18-20 and staged a six person sit-down Barrett Library strike.  On August 21, 1939 the men peaceably entered the Library and began to read.  Five of the men were arrested, first for trespassing then for disorderly conduct.  Alexandria resolved the race problem by constructing the black only Robert H. Robinson Library in 1940.

After World War II, beginning in 1947 attorney Samuel W. Tucker dedicated his life to eliminating racism: in Emporia (1947), Richmond (1960) and Alexandria.  S.W.’s motivation: racial injustice, massive resistance [Virginia’s Stanley Plan], and bullying especially Byrd relative and Alexandria resident James M. Thomson, Democratic Floor Leader of the Virginia House of Delegates.  Thomson wanted Tucker and related types disbarred; in 1957 and after.  In 1957 the Virginia Legislature confronted the NAACP; Samuel W. Tucker and nine other attorneys alleging unprofessional conduct.

In 1959 Tucker defended his brother Otto L., an Alexandria attorney, against disbarment charges.  To others dismay, Otto’s successes included Thompson v. County School Board of Arlington County, a 1958 school desegregation case linked to Virginia’s 1956 Pupil Placement Act.  Negro pupil assignments to all-white schools were based on a screening process.

The assignment criteria included five categories: attendance area, overcrowding at the white high school, academic accomplishment, psychological problems and adaptability.  Between 1956 and 1959 the PPA’s Pupil Placement Board reviewed 450,000 transfer applications: did not transfer a black child to a white school until 1960.  In 1961 S.W. Tucker described the Pupil Placement Board as “an instrument for the perpetuation of school segregation.”

In 1961 Tucker joined the Richmond law firm of Hill, Tucker & Marsh.  He also served as Chairman of the legal staff of the NAACP’s Virginia State Conference.  Tucker represented Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia on the NAACP’s national board of directors.

S.W. received a court reprimand in 1962 “after the judges dismissed ‘without prejudice’ charges arising from Tucker’s handling of criminal cases for which he admitted receiving NAACP funds.”  In NAACP v. Button, Attorney General of Virginia the US Supreme Court “struck down one of the few remaining pieces of Virginia’s ‘massive resistance’ legislation.”

In 1964 the lawyers Tucker were still working hard.  In April Otto L. represented four CORE anti-segregation demonstrators arrested in an Alexandria restaurant.  In May the US Supreme Court, Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (VA), again ruled in the NAACP and S.W.’s favor.  Samuel W. Tucker also ran for Congressional office [VA-4th].

The Newseum, located in Washington, D.C., remembers the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with a special exhibit, 1964: Civil Rights at 50.  The ongoing exhibit uses historic news coverage to “recount key civil rights milestones, including passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  For more information, visit http://www.newseum.org.

“In this critical hour Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen [R-Ill.] came through,” Lyndon B. Johnson wrote.  “Dirksen sounded the death knell for the Southern strategy of filibuster.  For the first time in history the Senate voted cloture on a civil rights bill.”

 “Justice requires us to remember that when any citizen denies his fellow, saying, ‘His color is not mine’ or ‘His beliefs are strange and different,’ in that moment he betrays America,” President Johnson said in his 1965 Inaugural Address.  “Let us reject any among us who seek to reopen old wounds and to rekindle old hatreds.  They stand in the way of a seeking nation.”

Stand in the way?  “Southern schools are quietly re-segregating, particularly by sequestering poor black students in schools of their own,” The Atlantic’s Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in May 2014.   “[The] story now is of backroom deals, difficult compromises and devastating consequences….”  Author Paul Street calls it “educational apartheid.”

As of April 2014 Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston School had 305 students, down 51 students from the previous year.    Only 28 or 9% of the students are white, the remainder of color.  School policy, to borrow Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 phrase, is a “tangle of pathologies.”

Today—nationwide—“the typical black student is in a school where almost two out of every three classmates (64%) are low-income, nearly double the level in schools of the typical white or Asian student (37% and 39% respectively),” UCLA’s Civil Rights Project concluded.

In school year 2013-2014, 81.7% of Alexandria’s Jefferson-Houston School students participated in the free and reduced lunch program, up 12.9% from 2012.  Jefferson-Houston is the city’s only K-8 school, an intended example of re-segregation.  Jim Crow’s pleased.  President Lyndon B. Johnson, Alexandria’s Tucker brothers probably not.

Columnist’s Note: According to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, the 5-year average per capita income for residents of the Jefferson-Houston School district is $110,000-$112,000.  Housing options include single family homes, low income public housing and jointly managed HOAs.  The poorly performing school was scheduled for State takeover however a Norfolk circuit court judge overturned Virginia’s school takeover law on June 10, 2014.


Written by: Sarah Becker ©2014
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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