The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


With All Deliberate Speed

Today, the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education is remembered as a watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement, and the end of legal segregation in public schools. But that iconic decision was only the beginning of a new struggle to begin integrating schools across the South. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s order to integrate America’s

Students protesting school closures in Prince Edward County, VA, 1963 (Credit: Virginia Historical Society)

Students protesting school closures in Prince Edward County, VA, 1963 (Credit: Virginia Historical Society)

schools “with all deliberate speed” was purposely vague, allowing local school boards to delay, obstruct, and generally slow the process of integrating black and white students. Oliver Hill Jr., the son of the prominent civil rights attorney, personally witnessed this strategy of “massive resistance” as a middle school student in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. In an interview with BackStory, he described some of the methods opponents of Brown v. Board employed to eliminate any “speed” from the Supreme Court’s ruling.

An “ideal” timeline for white Southerners:

“It was a phrase with built-in ambiguity. And across the South, many school districts took advantage of the ambiguity to take their own sweet time with the order. Some districts in Virginia chose to close their public schools down entirely, while funding so-called private academies for white boys and girls. And in fact, after they had made a few proposals to the opposing counsel and all of them were rejected, my father said they finally, just in exasperated way, asked, well, what do you think would be a reasonable time frame? And the other lawyers came back with 2020.”

On the slow pace of change:

“The white perception was, particularly in the South, that there would be this bloodbath if it took place too fast. And so I think it was to placate the more southern-leaning members of the court that Earl Warren kind of agreed to that phrasing. And I think that within a year or two, deliberate speed meant never. I mean, I was in one of the first groups to desegregate schools in Richmond, Virginia. And that was in 1961, so that was already seven years after the original decision. And even at that time, it was really just token integration. There were just a few black students in a few white schools.”

On the first day of integrated class:

“It was like entering another world. In the days of segregation in the South, even growing up in a middle class household, my world was circumscribed by the black community. It was very self-sufficient. So I really didn’t have a lot of experience interacting with white people. And so this first day, it was at Chandler Junior High school in Richmond. I must’ve been 12. And I was walking up the steps. It was a very imposing building. They must have had us come late, because there wasn’t the usual hustle and bustle of kids going in and out of the school. There was absolutely nobody out in front of the school as I was walking up the steps. I really didn’t know what to expect. And it was interesting. I mean, for the most part, most of the kids and most of the teachers were friendly. There were few, both teachers and students, who you could tell did not want us there.”

And what if the Supreme had ordered immediate integration:

“First of all, I don’t think there would have been a bloodbath. I think children are very resilient. A lot of black and white children in the south were playing together anyway. And I think the same social experiment that I was going through in the early ’60s would have happened earlier and in a more comprehensive way. And I think because of the delay, a lot of other factors started to come into play. Because in the ’60s, once you had the passage of the civil rights laws and society was generally more open for black people, not only did you have white flight to the suburbs, but black middle class flight to the suburbs. And so inner cities started to be starved of their tax base. You had this concentration of poverty. And so what started out as a race issue started to get conflated with class. And it made the problems of inner city schools and city life in general much more problematic than they would have been without those complications.”

You can hear this segment in its entirety on the episode “Speed Through Time: The Changing Pace of America.”