Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Giles, September 10, 1987. Interview C-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Political reaction to <cite>Brown</cite> in North Carolina

Giles recalls North Carolina politicians' immediate reaction to the <cite>Brown</cite> case as moderate in comparison to other southern states. He describes the Pupil Assignment Act as the prime example of the state's moderation. The Act avoided a statewide desegregation policy, calming whites' fears, but it also allowed the public to believe that they were in control of school assignments. Because the <cite>Brown</cite> case lacked the teeth to enforce desegregation on a federal level, Giles argues that states gained broad discretionary powers to preserve segregated schools.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Giles, September 10, 1987. Interview C-0063. 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

ROBERT GILES:
Well, at that time William Umstead was governor, and I think North Carolina was fortunate in having that sort of person in office at the time. His reaction was calm and one of simply pointing out that we don't know all of the implications of this, but we will get along with this, and we will be doing what is sensible for North Carolina. So even at that time I think it is correct to say, from the state level, we had in the office of the governor an individual who was going to set a good, calming influence rather than try to exploit the situation. I think that characterized what I recall as generally the attitude from the responsible state level officials. I don't believe there was any notion or idea at the time of exactly what to do. There was no grand scheme or anything. I think it's correct to say that those in public office at the time, the governor and members of the legislature, certainly did not welcome that decision. There was no desire to see integration of the races in the public schools whatsoever. I think, as a personal matter on most parts, it was, "Well, this is not a good thing." Perhaps distinguishing the attitude from that in certainly some of the states affected, we did not have in North Carolina the bellicose type of reaction, "Over my dead body" and so forth. Now later, of course, in '54, November or December, Governor Umstead died. Governor Hodges, who was then lieutenant governor, became the governor. Even though I was not yet in Raleigh on the attorney general's staff, my recollection at that time was, on the few occasions when I was involved in some meetings with Governor Hodges and others, that here was a very persuasive person, a strong personality, and an extremely able person. I think here again his basic disposition was here is a problem, how best to deal with it. I think his general attitude, as well as that of the former governor, Governor Umstead, was, "We don't want to destroy the public schools. We want to save them and keep them because we think that's needed by the people." That's sort of the general atmosphere. Now, of course, during that time, as I recall, there were various statements and comments from people in public office, members of the legislature, some school boards, or this or that, that reflected a much more extreme sort of reaction. But from the state level I think it was one of moderation. Not because they were really accepting or looking with favor on that decision, not that at all, but that here are people in responsible positions who just were experienced, solid, pragmatic, and wanted to try to work out the best course possible.
JAMES JENKINS:
The state leadership set a moderating example, in other words?
ROBERT GILES:
I think that is true.
JAMES JENKINS:
Then Umstead, of course, appointed Thomas J. Pearsall of Rocky Mount to head a commission. Of course Umstead died on November 7, 1954. This commission, as I remember, drafted the Pupil Assignment Act which was adopted in the General Assembly of 1955. I think, among other things, that had the purpose of telling the populace that we aren't sitting on our hands. We're doing something. Then the General Assembly made the Pearsall Commission a statutory body or something, as I recall, in '55. You might just touch briefly, before we get into the Pearsall Plan, on the Pupil Assignment Act of 1955 without getting into particulars, just generally what it did.
ROBERT GILES:
Well, my recollection—and it has been some years since I have actually read the language and I don't know about all the details—my recollection was that certainly the main purpose was a legal objective. That was not to have the State Board of Education or state level officials in the position of seeming to be able to make decisions for every school throughout the state so far as pupil assignments, but rather to put that at the local level and make it clear that the state itself, from Raleigh, is not masterminding or trying to assure a particular result. The other thing which was recognized was that in any event this is going to be a very serious problem for citizens generally. The matter of mixing of races in the public schools was extremely volatile, and, after all, this really should be handled at the local level by the people most directly involved. A third point, I think, that was recognized is that there was a great deal of variation throughout the state in terms of racial composition. Many counties had a few blacks and other counties had large numbers, approaching 50% and maybe even more. So there again I think it was a recognition that it was desirable to get away from any state level pattern that would be imposed upon all these diverse localities. I don't believe there was any assumption that simply enacting that assignment plan, there in the '55 general assembly, was an answer or the complete answer. But keep in mind that throughout the whole country, and particularly in the South, which was most directly affected, that the Supreme Court decision of 1954 had little to say and no guidance at all as to how that decision was going to be implemented. It did have the very broad sounding phrase, "Proceed with all deliberate speed," but it remained for other decisions by the U. S. Supreme Court in the next few years to start putting some flesh on the bones, so to speak. That's my general recollection of the atmosphere.