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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edward L. Rankin, August 20, 1987. Interview C-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Reaction to <cite>Brown</cite> and establishment of Pearsall group

Rankin describes Governor Umstead's initial reaction to the <cite>Brown</cite> decision and his establishment of a citizen's group under the guidance of Thomas Pearsall. According to Rankin, Umstead saw the decision as a mistake, but that he believed North Carolina should abide by the law. The formation of the Pearsall group was Umstead's effort to ensure that North Carolina public schools would have time to desegregate and to work towards winning over public support of desegregating public schools.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edward L. Rankin, August 20, 1987. Interview C-0044. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

As we mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court decision on desegregation came down in May, 1954. I'd like for you to talk about the genesis of the Pearsall Plan. I believe Governor Umstead began it all with the appointment of a committee. EDWARD L. RANKIN, Jr.: That's correct.
Let's talk about that. EDWARD L. RANKIN, Jr.: Well, first of all, I think it's important to understand that the Supreme Court decision came as a great shock, not only in North Carolina, but throughout the South. The different governers in different states reacted in different ways. Mr. Umstead was shocked by the first bulletin, and the first information I gave him. Of course, we were overwhelmed with calls from the media for comment from the governor. His first reaction, and just within minutes, he said, "I will not have any immediate comment until I see the opinion and have a chance to read it and understand the ramifications." This in itself was rather unusual because other governors were expressing outrage and, you know, all kinds of color statement. Anyway, he did just that. He immediately began work. He called up the chief justice. He began to call lawyers around the state whose judgment he trusted. Of course, he talked with the attorney general. He got copies of the opinion. I mean in a matter of hours or soon as possible. I've forgotten when his statement was released, but it's in his letter book. It's, of course, mentioned in this Pearsall document. He set down with a pencil and wrote out that statement himself. It was not drafted by anybody else. In effect, he said that he thought that the Supreme Court had made a mistake. The Court did not realize the serious complications they were causing the South and its states but that after all was said and done, North Carolina will abide by the law of the land. It would work toward that end. Unlike some other governors, he did not make all kinds of wild allegations or promises or threats. He expressed his dismay at the problems raised by the decision but said North Carolina would do the best it could to deal with the problems. Again, he had resorted to the same procedure of talking to his many close friends and to those he thought had expertise in these areas. He was good at this. He'd get on the phone at the mansion, and he'd have them come in one by one. I won't ever forget, Donnie Sorrell, who was an old buddy of his . . . This was back when the Governor was confined to the mansion. He told me to call Donnie. Said, "I want to talk to Donnie. Tell him to come over to the mansion at eight o'clock." He said, "Tell him to come directly to the mansion. Don't go to the S&W for supper. I don't want him to see or talk to anyone. Come directly to the mansion." I called Donnie and he said, "I'll do it." So I was at the mansion when he came in at 8 P.M. He walked in and said, "William, I did exactly what you said. I drove from my home in Durham directly here to the mansion. So nobody would know who I was or where I was going. I didn't even turn on my headlights." [Laughter] "I hope this was okay." Mr. Umstead did a lot of his conferences one on one. Instead of getting a group together, he did a great deal of this kind of intensive, personal talking. What do you think and what about so and so? He did a great deal of hard work before he came up with the idea that there had to be some sort of citizens' group. Of course, the legislature was not in session, and this was something the governor could do. I can't tell you why he selected Thomas J. Pearsall. It was an act of great fortune for North Carolina. I do think that Mr. Umstead realized that it had to be someone who understood the significance of this great, far reaching opinion. Such a person had to be able to look down the road and see where North Carolina eventually had to end. At the same time he or she had to fully understand the implications, political, emotional, everything else, impact that it was going to have on the people of North Carolina, especially from eastern North Carolina. I think Tom was an ideal choice because he was a former Speaker of the House, a respected person, lawyer, businessman, well known and well liked throughout the state. He was a sensitive person, a person who knew how to work with people in all walks of life. But why Umstead selected Tom Pearsall, I'll never know. In any event, Governor Umstead did name that first committee, and they went to work. Meanwhile, of course, this was all happening during that same period in 1954, when the governor was trying to follow the work of the Advisory Budget Commission. You know, Mr. Umstead was really up to his eyeballs. So this was all going on at the same time. Tom's account in the manuscript tells about this early period. The truth of the matter, as far as I could tell, Jay, no one knew what the answer was. I mean, above all, there was no crystal ball you could look into. But the one thing that North Carolina did, and I think Tom Pearsall and his initial group and William Umstead understood, was, we've got to have time. We don't know how fast the court will move, or the federal court system will move on this thing, but we've got to have time. People have to adjust to this, and, above all, we've got to save our public schools. That was foremost in William Umstead's mind from the very beginning. How they were going to do it, he and the Pearsall Committee didn't know. But we're going to save our public school system, and we're going to get through this some way. So in that period from May until his death in November, he was involved in these early deliberations. Perhaps it was more the assurance that he understood what they were strugging with. It was a very difficult time.