Sibley Commission


Georgia politics in the 1950s and 1960s was, as one observer described it at the time, “paternalistic at best and autocratic at worst.” Control of state politics rested in the hands of rural demagogues that espoused racial invectives and declared that segregation was a unique, defining characteristic of Southern life. Enabling this rural authoritarianism was the Democratic Party’s total control of the state, possible through the use of the antiquated county-unit system for all primary elections. This system, a holdover from the white primary that was declared unconstitutional in the 1950s, provided each of Georgia’s 159 counties equal representation in determining the Democratic nominee, who almost always went on to win the general election. This system gave the many, rural counties in Georgia’s so-called southern “Black Belt” an outsized influence over state politics compared to the fewer, more densely populated urban counties. (Roche 4-5) This control did not last forever, however. The county unit system was on its way out, as a 1962 court case declared it unconstitutional for violating the principle of “one man, one vote.” Shrinking populations and the end of a system that inflated rural representation loosened the demagogues’ grip on the state in the mid-1960s, even if it had been impenetrable in the decades before. (Roche, xvii) As a result, the fierce fight over segregation and the state’s long-held strategy of massive resistance proved to be a swan song for the politicians of rural Georgia.

Reactions to Brown v. Board

Naturally, the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was anathema to the Georgia politicians committed to a policy of massive resistance. This outcry was obvious throughout the 1954 Democratic primary for governor. During the campaign, each candidate presented their plans for preventing integration, and the proposals included abolishing the Supreme Court, passing a new segregation amendment to either the state or national constitution, and even moving every black citizen out of the state of Georgia. The most incredible idea of all proposed a survey of every citizen’s opinions on the question of separate schools. The state would then create a register of everyone who supported integration, declare them mentally insane, haul them off to Milledgeville, and lock them in the state’s mental asylum. (Roche, 27-28) 

Eventually, a realistic solution emerged and took its place within the state’s pantheon of massive resistance legislation. During the 1954 session, the General Assembly passed the so-called “private school amendment” to the state constitution and placed it on the same ballot as the aforementioned governor’s race. The amendment acted as a backstop against integration; if a federal court required a Georgia school to integrate, it would trigger an automatic elimination of all state funding to that school. In its place, the state would provide vouchers for students to attend private schools in the area. When presented for public approval during the general election, six months after Brown v. Board, the private school amendment passed with 54% of the vote. (Roche 19-20) 

Furthermore, the General Assembly added another layer of protection against integration in the 1964 Appropriations Act and all subsequent funding bills. These bills accomplished much the same purpose: if a public school accepted any black students, the bill required the governor to eliminate that school’s funding. (Roche xii)

This solution seemed airtight until court decisions in another southern state changed the game. Although no schools in Georgia had attempted to integrate yet, (if anything, Georgia had moved further from that reality happening. In 1956, the General Assembly passed a referendum calling for the impeachment of the Supreme Court,  (Anderson, 38)) in 1958 several students attempted to integrate schools in Virginia. The state responded by closing down only the integrated schools, and the students sued. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined in James v. Almond that Virginia’s closure of only integrated schools was unconstitutional. The court ruled that leaving only segregated schools open denied all citizens equal access to state resources. Any state action had to apply to all public students, giving Virginia the choice between either reopening the integrated schools, or closing all the schools. When Virginia chose the former, politicians in Georgia quickly realized the consequences of the decision. Overnight, the private school amendment had become a nuclear option to prevent integration. The automatic provisions no longer applied only to the schools that attempted to integrate. In order to remain constitutional, if the amendment’s automatic provisions closed down a single integrated school, the amendment would also bring the state’s entire public education system down with it. The private school amendment was a time bomb waiting to go off. (Roche, 75; “Mind Changing Time” 45)

Less than a year later, a federal judge lit the fuse. In 1959, several black students sued to gain admission into segregated Atlanta school system. In the case Calhoun v. Latimer, Federal Judge Frank Hooper ruled in the students favor and ordered the district to submit a desegregation plan. Not wanting to trigger the automatic closures, however, he delayed its implementation until after the next session of the General Assembly. Essentially, Hooper placed the state’s ruling class on notice: integration was coming, and only closing the schools would keep it from happening. (Not another little rock, 193).

Creation of the Committee

Immediately, Georgia’s Governor Ernest Vandiver found himself in a serious quandary. A year earlier, Vandiver had famously won a landslide victory with the promise that “no, not one” Georgia child would ever attend a desegregated school (Not another little rock, 192). But after Calhoun, keeping that promise required the elimination of public education in Georgia. Such a decision would destroy the state economically and Vandiver politically, while also delivering the government into the hands of integrationists following an almost-certain backlash (O’Brien, Georgia’s respone to Brown v. Board, 14). But to defy the private school amendment and allow the schools to integrate without cutting off funding would trigger a backlash from his base in the rural counties, as well as criminal charges from the state for failing to follow his duty to uphold Georgia law. (Roche, 78) 

Vandiver languished in this political paralysis for months until his chief of staff, Griffin Bell, devised a solution, or at least a way to find one. He proposed a traveling study committee to hold hearings and public forums throughout the state and determine the populace’s attitude towards either integrating the schools or closing them permanently. With a better understanding of the state’s social climate, Vandiver and the General Assembly could move in the least contentious direction. The idea was primarily a ploy to buy time and stall (Vandiver hoped he could delay the decision long enough until he was out of office in 1962), but it worked. (Roche, xiv) Judge Hooper acquiesced, and further delayed the integration of the Atlanta schools until the commission could complete its work. Vandiver appreciated the delay, and set about handpicking committee members with enough credentials to impress the federal judge with how serious the state was regarding the issue. The final roster included presidents of the state’s Farm Bureau and Chamber of Commerce, members of the educational bureaucracy, and chairmen of the General Assembly Committee on Schools. (Roche, 82-84) J. Battle Hall, the state represnetative of Rome and Floyd County, a President of the Berry College Alumni Association from 1958-1960, and an ardent segregationist, was also a member of the committee (Anderson, 38).

John A. Sibley

Vandiver’s handpicked chairman of the committee was John A. Sibley, for whom the commission was named. At seventy-one years of age, only Sibley “could have symbolized both the southern patriarch and the modern New South businessman.” (Roche, 85). Born on a farm in Milledgeville, Sibley had earned his law degree from the University of Georgia in 1911. After serving as a Bartow county judge for three years, he then worked his way up to partner of the prestigious Atlanta law firm King and Spalding. Notably, he was chairman of the Board of Trustees for Berry College.

Sibley was a member of what historians have termed the “commercial-civic elite,” a class of Southern businessmen and local leaders who opposed segregation, but valued industry, law and order, and profitability even more. Such individuals made up the state’s chambers of commerce, city councils, and in this case, powerful exploratory committees. (Not another little rock) Sibley was strongly opposed to integration, once writing that it would lead to miscegenation and “a mongrel race of lower ideals, lower standards, and lower traditions.” (Roche, 86). In a speech given to the Atlanta Men’s Club, Sibley said that, in the Brown decision, the Supreme Court “departed from the wisdom of the ages and based its decision upon sociological expediency.” That said, he acknowledged the authority of the courts and, although he hoped that later decisions would reverse or mitigate Brown, he acknowledged it as the current “law of the land.” (“Text of Sibley’s Address on Georgia Schools.” The Atlanta Constitution, November 11, 1960. John A. Sibley Papers, Box 127, Folder 1, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Ga.) His submission to the Supreme Court’s orders came from another facet of his identity as well. Although he was an ardent segregationist, he was a businessman first. He feared serious racial unrest or defiance in Georgia would invite the same economic hardships that plagued Little Rock, Arkansas following the public desegregation of their schools only once the National Guard was involved. Sibley and many other “commercial-civic elite” were willing to pay lip-service to the Brown decision, if need be, in order to keep their bottom line solvent.

Although Vandiver languished for months believing that the options before him were either to accept integration or close the schools, Sibley discovered a way out. He could keep the state from becoming another Little Rock, while also ensuring almost every white child in the state remained in all-white classrooms. He realized that the requirements laid out in the Brown decision left enough room to continue segregation in all but name only; it was possible to follow the letter of the law without following the spirit of it. A change in strategy, from the outright defiance of massive resistance to the subtle evasiveness of “freedom of choice” plans, token integration, geography-based districting, and rural intimidation could keep the vast majority of Georgia students in whites-only schools without closing the public education system. This racist intention behind the new bills was not kept secret. It was a very public, published and acknowledged fact, if not an assumption, that Georgia’s racist attitudes would die hard, if at all. Sibley’s solution was unashamed of its highly racist implications. (“Digest of the Sibley Report and Summary of Georgia Laws Relating to School Segregation.” RG4: Office of the President, BOT, John A Sibley 1935; 1953-1958, Folder 2, Berry College Archives, Mt. Berry Ga.)

The centerpiece of the new strategy was the so called “local-option,” which would allow individual communities the freedom to choose between closing their own schools or allowing integration. Much like the private school amendment but on a smaller scale, this local option would allow for the closure of integrated schools through the constitutional runaround of a local exemption. Containing the consequences of the private-school amendment to the local level allowed both the prevention of integration while keeping the state’s politicians free from political backlash and the judicial logic of the Virginia case (Roche, 93) Essentially, segregation and public schools could still exist, but the strategy of resistance needed to be more clever. As Governor Vandiver would later pitch it, ending outright defiance and operating within the confines of Brown would not stop the state from using “every legal means and every legal resource at our command to maintain segregated schools in Georgia.” (Not another little rock, 211)

Vandiver bought into Sibley’s proposal, but the greatest obstacle to the new strategy was the inability for the average Georgian to conceive of segregation within the legal confines of Brown yet apart from massive resistance and Jim Crow. It was largely a problem of their own making. For years Georgia’s racial demagogues had conflated massive resistance with segregation in general, packaging and advocating outright defiance as the only strategy that could hold back integration. The campaign worked. Most Georgia voters believed massive resistance was the only possible way to continue separating the races. They could not fathom of any alternative; to end massive resistance was to end integration. (Roche, 80, 68, 88)

Sibley believed it was possible to separate the two. In fact, he needed to separate the two if he had any hope of maintaining the school system. But he needed to make the distinction clear to the voters. The commission was not looking to end segregation. Rather, they were looking into whether the state should end massive resistance, protect public schools, and maintain segregation as much as possible. The alternative was to continue open defiance, end public education, and perpetuate segregation completely. When Sibley accepted the chairman position, he believed his role was to make this dichotomy clear to the citizens of Georgia before they made their choice.  (Roche, 88)

The Commission Gathers

Indeed, everything Sibley did as chairman of the General Assembly Committee on Schools was to protect what he believed was the commission’s purpose: making these two options incredibly clear. In order to do that, Sibley dominated the group decisions. Despite the many credentials of the committee’s other members, they agreed that Sibley should be the only member allowed to publicly speak for the body and sit for interviews with the press. Sibley alone crafted the committee’s final report, all but one of its public statements, and a thirty-minute monologue he delivered before every public hearing. (Roche, 89) 

All of these efforts made very clear to the people of Georgia that the choice was not between either closing the schools and integrating, but between closing the schools and the local option. Although Sibley determined ending massive resistance would be best for the state before the hearings started, (he even hinted throughout the hearings that this was the case) he still wished to hear voices throughout the state on the subject. As a result, Sibley forced every witness, regardless of their motivations for appearing before the committee, to formally choose between the two options, and shouted down or gaveled into silence anyone who used the committee as a platform for redundant diatribes on the merits of segregation. Sibley believed the populace was in agreement that segregation should continue, he only wanted to hear whether citizens thought continuing massive resistance was worth losing public education. (Roche, xiv) Ultimately, Sibley believed it was the responsibility of the commission to inform Georgians of the decision their government faced. As a result of his heavy-handed and domineering strategy, the General Assembly Commission on Schools was popularly known as the Sibley Commission.

The main task of the commission was to travel to each of the state’s ten congressional districts and hold public forums on the average citizen’s preference between the local option and closing the schools. All ten of these hearings occurred throughout March of 1960. Sibley wanted to avoid witnesses using the hearings as a platform to share their personal views, so the order of  witnesses before the committee prioritized representatives of large organizations, such as school groups, farmers associations, labor unions, and chambers of commerce. The commission encouraged these organizations to conduct polls of their members and present the findings so as to get an even broader sample of the state’s attitudes on the subject. (Roche, 90) 

Although the Sibley Commission was initially a ploy to stall for time, in the hands of its chairman and namesake, it became a powerful force across the State. Sibley believed moving away from massive resistance and embracing the local option was the best path forward for the state. While convincing the average citizen of this reality was an important task for the committee, it genuinely did seek out the voices of Georgia citizens regarding the two choices. If nothing else, it sought to make the choices clear. Naturally, the Commission gathered significant attention, both for its star-power and for the importance of its subject. The culminating interest and high stakes of the Sibley Commission turned the entire month of March 1961 into, as one contemporary observer described it, “a typical southern, particularly low-style Georgia occasion.” (Roche, xvi)

The Hearings come to Rome

Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District, the northwestern-most corner of the state and home to Rome and Floyd County, was the third stop on the commission’s swing through Georgia. A serious ice storm and other inclement weather closed schools and businesses in Rome, yet that did not stop nearly three hundred concerned Georgians from attending the meeting in the Bartow County Courthouse in Cartersville. The meeting was a microcosm of two broad trends that emerged consistently throughout the hearings: the state’s geographic and demographic trends had a significant impact on community attitudes, and Sibley’s paternalistic treatment of black witnesses. (Anderson, 39-42)

At the beginning of every hearing, Sibley would present to the audience and the lineup of witnesses the two choices Georgia had, and asked them to support one or the other.  Regardless of each witness’s opinions on integration and race relations, Sibley required all of them to choose between either closing all schools or giving local districts the choice between closing and “a pupil placement plan that would limit integration.” (“Hearings Questions.” John A. Sibley Papers, Box 126, Folder 8, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Ga.) Throughout the hearings, witnesses’ preference for the two options fell into a predictible pattern: northern counties favored the local option, while southern counties preferred shuttering the schools. This geographic divide paralleled a demographic divide: the largest population of black citizens was in the state’s southern “Black Belt” region. These southern counties with higher percentages of black people were vehemently opposed to integration of any kind. It was hardest for these counties to separate massive resistance from segregation, and they were unwilling to even allow the token integration that Sibley promised. In contrast, the northern counties, of which the Seventh Congressional District consisted, had smaller black populations and were more accommodating of the local option (Anderson 16, Roche 116-119) This trend was so pervasive that, by the end of the month of hearings, most observers could predict which of the two options any given district would support based on its location within the state (Roche, 152) (A similar trend did not emerge at this hearing, but was apparent during the hearings in the Atlanta, Savannah, and Columbus areas. Whether an area was urban or rural was highly deterministic of the community’s attitudes towards the issue, with urban areas in favor of the local option and rural areas in favor of closing the schools.)

The Cartersville hearing demonstrated that north-south divide, as the witnesses from the district’s fourteen counties, five of which were all white, supported the local option four to one. (Roche 117)

Meeting of the General Assembly on Schools – Seventh Congressional District_ March 10, 1960. John A. Sibley Papers
(Box 128, Folder 1, Emory University, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Atlanta, Ga.)

Witnesses from Rome included representatives from the Floyd County Educational Association, which supported the local option 189-3, the Rome Board of Education, of which all but one of its eleven schools supported the local option, and the West Rome parent’s association, of which three quarters supported the local option. Shorter College President Randall Minor represented eighteen of nineteen members of the Chamber of Commerce who supported the local option, and Jules Levin, a member of the chamber and a founding member of the RCHR, compared his immigrant parents’ the experience of disenfranchisement and abuse to the experience of black citizens at the time, and stated that public schools were the only way for them to improve their station. With that in mine, Levin declared that closing the schools would be “an act of suicide on the part of society.” (“Meeting of the General Assembly on Schools – Seventh Congressional District” March 10, 1960. John A. Sibley Papers, Box 128, Folder 1, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Atlanta, Ga. ; Prophett, Coleman. “Floyd Witnesses for Open Schools, Cartersville Hearing Testimony Strongly Favors Local Option.” Rome News Tribune, March 11, 1960) One standout testimony came from a white mother in Smyrna whose five children had been home from school during the recent ice storm. Fed up with her children during the previous week, she did not want the schools to close because she desperately wanted her kids out of the house. “If colored children will be their classmates, then so be it.” (Levin, Voices in Protest, 52)

Throughout the Commission’s run, Sibley frequently said that the “overwhelming majority of Georgian’s”  favored segregation.  Again, this was an instance of Sibley not understanding another person could disagree with the white man’s outlook (that’s in Roche) In reality, however, there were individuals who testified that indicated they at least favored integration beyond the token amount promised. Some even implied or, in the case of Jules Levin, outright stated not only their support of integration, but of civil rights and equality in general. Religious organizations also greatly supported both integration and civil rights. For example, both Reverend R.C. Booley, who represented the Cherokee Presbytery and the Georgia Council of Churches, as well as A.M. Von Allman, who represented the Rome Christian Council, explained that their organizations near-unanimously supported integration and the adoption of Civil Rights Legislation as seen in other states. Indeed, despite Sibley’s insistence, even in the final report, that all of Georgia favored continued integration, this was in fact a projection of his own opinion upon the rest of the state. (“The Report of the General Assembly Committee on Schools.” April 28, 1960. John A. Sibley Papers, Box 126, Folder 1, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Ga.)

Some Romans did support closing the schools however, such as the local post of the American Legion, as well as a local labor union. Although the union had over 4,500 members nationwide, the representative could only speak for the twenty-five local members who unanimously supported segregation “even at the cost of closing the schools.” When the union’s representative declared this to the courtroom, applause broke out. (Transcript, 73) Another man, representing himself and his family, said that because of his experience working daily with black coworkers, he supported closing the schools and that “Before I would send my school (sic), my child to school with any colored child, I would keep him home.” (Transcript, 83) 

Another trend from throughout the Sibley Commission that also occurred in Cartersville was Sibley’s paternalistic treatment of black witnesses. That black witnesses appeared before the hearing at all is initially surprising, however, Sibley based this decision on the assumption that Georgia’s black population actually preferred segregation. A speech by R.W. Greene, a south Georgia black schools superintendent, informed this assumption. In this speech, copies of which Sibley distributed to his friends in the summer of 1954, Greene noted the black community’s pride in recently created “equalization schools” across the state. (The Equalizaiton Schools initiative was another prong in the segregationist agenda. In the 1950s, the state, sensing a nationwide awakening to the inherent inequality stemming from the Plessy vs. Ferguson mandate, sought to shore up it’s “separate but equal” chops by funding black schools all over the state. Many of these “equalizaiton schools” were equal to, if not more advanced, than some white schools, although certainly that was not always the case. Sibley generalized Greene’s pride in equalization schools to the entire black population, and wished to allow black witnesses at the commission hearings to prove the black population had no interest in ending segregation. Sibley, concerned that lawsuits may endanger the local option plan, devised a separate list of questions for black witnesses which sought to tease out this attitude. (Roche, 92-93.)

Questions for Negroes – John A. Sibley Papers (Box 126, Folder 8, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Ga.) 

The list included questions about the black witlessness’ preferences about segregation, concern about black children’s leadership opportunities in white schools, and whether integration would limit black families’ control over their children’s education. Sibley’s first question for black witnesses was whether they believed black children “acquire a sense of inferiority through attending segregated schools.” By the fact alone that he asked this question, Sibley presumably hoped they would answer in the negative. (“Questions for Negroes.” John A. Sibley Papers, Box 126, Folder 8, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Ga.)

Very quickly, however, Sibley realized his assumptions were not accurate, as some black witnesses indicated their support for integrated schools. His responses to this divergence from expectations usually involved paternalistic responses and leading questions to get the answer he wanted. Furthermore, Sibley portrayed black witnesses who supported integration as “malcontents,” disparage their character, and suggest their opinions were not representative of the black community. (Roche, 123) By the third hearing in Cartersville, these strong-arming tactics earned reproach from the state’s black leaders and calls for the testimony of black witnesses be thrown out, particularly the testimony of black principals, who were allegedly pressured by white superintendents to support segregation. (Roche, 117-118) Sibley, trying to save face, said he would allow black witnesses to answer the questions for white witnesses, although he assured the audience that such a choice would not be productive. (Transcript, 10)

These tensions emerged during the testimony from six black witnesses, although none of them were from Rome or Floyd County. In one instance, Jesse W. Cook, a minister and NAACP representative, pushed back against the notion that the black community was proud of their own schools by arguing they never actually had autonomy. “The local schools are operated by your superintendents,” he said. “I know not of a Negro or colored superintendent, so since the Negroes never had an opportunity to operate the schools, I don’t know.” (Roche, 118) Another, less feisty witness acquiesced under pressure that he did not know whether segregated schools would be effective. This was largely because he had only known segregated schools, but Sibley got the answer he was looking for. (Anderson, 41) A final black witness, an elderly black man, did not respond to Sibley’s questioning, instead, “with words of anguish, he spouted out his embittered testimony. All his life, it had been ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ It had been too much for him, too long — and he stepped down.” (Levin, 52) The Cartersrsville meeting proved to be a fateful crack in Sibley’s approach to black witnesses, and he would soon accommodate black testimony away from his rigid line of questioning (Roche, 122). The decision represents a realization that the testimony of black witnesses was, to quote the Rome News Tribune, “harder to pin down.” Prophett, Coleman. “Floyd Witnesses for Open Schools, Cartersville Hearing Testimony Strongly Favors Local Option.” Rome News Tribune, March 11, 1960.

The Final Reports

Throughout the month of hearings, these patterns and others emerged and defined the debate surrounding the public schools. Northern and urban areas supported the local option, while southern and rural areas supported closing the schools in order to prevent segregation. Ultimately, the only position that became clear was that the state was divided. A majority of witnesses did support the continuation of massive resistance. The exact number is unclear, as newspapers say that 831 supported massive resistance and 731 supported the local option, but the official report states that 1003 supported massive resistance and 574, about 36%,  supported the local option (the secretary included the opinions of speakers at the hearings who did not take the stand). In any case, the ten hearings demonstrated that the congressional districts were also divided, with the five northern districts in favor of the local option and the five southern districts willing to stop integration at the cost of abandoning the schools. Of course, not every Georgian had been heard from, and Sibley acknowledged that the hearings were merely a small sample of state opinion, and that the final results should only be used to inform recommendations to the assembly. (Roche, 159).

Sibley was not shy about his support for the local option plan; he hinted at it throughout the hearings. The local option plan, as well as Vandiver’s pledge to use “every legal means and every legal resource” would both prevent an explosive and financially-devastating incident like in Little Rock while also maintaining segregation as much as legally possible. (Roche, 160) While Sibley did want to hear the voice of the people, he never wavered from his belief in the best course of action for a segregated Georgia. When it came time to issue the final report in April of 1960, Sibley took advantage of North Georgia’s cracks in support for massive resistance, and recommended the local option. That said, of the commission’s twenty members, only eleven signed the majority report. (Mind Changing Time, 56; Roche, 163)

The report itself began with a complaint against the Brown v. Board decision, declaring the decision “unsound on the facts,” and “a usurpation of legislative function through judicial process.”

Digest of the Sibley Report and Summary of Georgia Laws Relating to School Segregation, n.d.  – Office of the President (RG4: Office of the President, Box 9, BOT, John Sibley, 1935; 1953-1958, Berry College Archives, Mount Berry, Ga.)

That said, he acknowledged that the decision was binding, and forced Georgia to pick between the two options. When these were posed throughout the state via hearings, a clear division emerged. Because of that division, and a lack of clear consensus on either solution, Sibley recommended the local option to allow a “degree of integration rather than to sacrifice their public schools.” To shore up the risk of actual integration, a “freedom of association” amendment would also preserve the division, and serve as a way to keep white students from being forced out of their white-majority schools. (Roche, 164, 166)

Sibley made it clear, however, that although he was supporting the local option, he was not supporting integration. He proposed a variety of clever measures to work within the confines of the Brown decision. Sibley, and likewise the vast majority of Georgians, believed that segregation was the proper order of society. The report did not advocate for integration, it was not a historic moment for civil rights or social justice. Rather, It was a recommendation to integrate in name only, a proposed alternative to massive resistance. As an added bonus, because it agreed with the higher courts and was not openly defiant, working within the confines of narrowly decided court orders would perpetuate segregation for longer than massive resistance. (Not Another Little Rock, 196-197)

Judge Hooper was nonetheless satisfied with the report, and ordered the General Assembly to enact them. As the private-school amendment was still on the books, however, he postponed the integration order to give the state legislature enough time to change the law; the Atlanta schools would integrate in the fall of 1961. Despite this order, Governor Vandiver, still felt paralyzed. Although the Judge issued clear orders for the General Assembly, their marching orders came from him. The Sibley Commission recommendation was not binding, nor did it encompass all Georgians. Furthermore, the Sibley Commission showed that the state was still divided on the issue. Essentially, the situation had not changed. An impending integration order from Judge Hooper was on the books, and now Vandiver was painfully aware that sixty-percent of the state supported segregation so much they were willing to defy the order and trigger the private school amendment. Rather than provide clarity, the Sibley Commission made everything more complicated. Most frustrating of all, the mandated integration in Fall 1961 was scheduled to occur just a few months before the election to replace Vandiver. The Commission had delayed the issue agonizingly close to Vandiver’s retirement, but still he was unable to pawn the integration problem off to the next guy (Roche, 175-176).

Still, there were almost fifteen months between the release of the Commission’s report and the order to integrate the schools, so Vandiver used “the time-honored tactic of public officials–he stalled.” No significant developments or changes to the strategy of massive resistance changed for almost eight months. Then, another Federal Judge lit the fuse. (Roche, 176)

The Desegregation of UGA

On January 6, 1961, District Court Judge William Bootle found that the University of Georgia’s denied admission for two African American Students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, entirely because of their race. Because of this, Bootle ordered the school to immediately accept the two students. When the courts quickly rejected the state’s appeals,  Vandiver’s stall tactics met their reckoning. Hunter and Holmes enrolled crossed UGA’s North Campus and enrolled in classes on January 9. (Mind Changing Time, 59).

The incident at UGA forced Vandiver’s hand. In a State of the State adress on January 9, he publicly stated his belief that closing the University would have devastating consequences for the state. He lamented, however, that Georgia’s massive resistance legislation, which he called an “albatross,” forced his hand nonetheless. Vandiver called on the General Assembly to change the massive resistance legislation, and announced that, unless the state changed its policies, he would withdraw state funding from the school. In a final plea, he stated “we cannot abandon public education.” (Not Another Little Rock, 197-199) 

The decision sparked outrage and protests both in Athens and throughout the state. Although Vandiver advocated for open schools, many of the complaints targeted the governor as well as others in the state that supported continued massive resistance at the expense of public education. The protests spurred Judge Bootle to issue an injunction against the withdrawal of funds for UGA, but it wasn’t necessary. The school’s president never received a closure notice from Vandiver. ((Not another little rock 199-200)One legislator knew exactly why Vandiver never sent the order. ““With all those legislators’ sons over there and the way everybody in the state feels about it was different. He wouldn’t dare close it.”  Vandiver was bluffing.  (Roche, 180-184).

Nevertheless, Vandiver’s announcement triggered enough outcry against massive resistance to grant him the political capital to advocate for a change in policy away from massive resistance. UGA did not integrate peacefully, at least not at first. The first night after the school integrated, a crowd of two thousand marched on Hunter’s dormitory and only disbanded after the police used tear gas grenades and the fire department trained hoses onto the protesters. (Not another little rock 201) Nevertheless, the local community maintained law and order and, most important to men like Sibley, Georgia’s economic prospects remained in tact. Segregation had ended at the state’s flagship university, and the governor was not willing to close the school to stop it. Massive resistance died in Georgia. (Roche, 184-186)

On January 19, 1961, Vandiver accepted the political reality that had asserted itself in Georgia. In a primetime speech, he called for the repeal of the private-school amendment and automatic-fund withdrawals, and offered in its place a series of child-protection plans and “freedom-of-association” bills to ensure the maximum amount of legal segregation within the confines of the existing court cases. It was exactly the recommendations laid out in the final report by the Sibley Commission. With the exception of a few ardent segregationists from the state’s southern counties, the General Assembly overwhelmingly backed Vandiver’s plan and passed it into law on January 31st. Essentially, when massive resistance crumbled in a matter of days, Vandiver and the other segregationists turned to the report from John Sibley. Representing the business and civic leaders from across the state, Sibley’s recommendations proved to be the most palatable to the state’s demagogues during the critical days of segregation in Georgia. The report was a blueprint for following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. (Roche, 184-186, Not another Little Rock 211). 

Sibley got his wish. The new alternative to massive resistance proved remarkably effective, producing widespread token integration without meaningfully enacting change. Atlanta public schools followed this token integration plan in the fall, and other districts around the state began enacting the freedom of association plans. “Freedom of choice” plans also became a significant tactic during this phase. These plans maintained the same schools and allowed for students and teachers to choose where they wanted to attend or work. White students never chose to go to black schools, and black students were given the entire burden of integrating schools where they were in the vast minority. As a result, they proved incredibly ineffective at actually integrating schools. By 1962, 195 districts in the state were still segregated. True, while Sibley and Vandiver and the General Assembly did end segregation and unlocked the door to integration, “Unlocking the door, however, and pushing the door open are two different actions.” (O’Brien, Georgia’s response to brown v. board, 15)

In a speech to Berry College regarding race relations, college president John R. Bertrand held up John Sibley, the school’s chairman of the board of trustees, as an example of positive leadership in racial areas. While Bertrand was a significant and genuine supporter of civil rights, spearheading the school’s integration efforts and financially supporting Berry’s first black students, the praise was undeserved. (College is Helpful, but not Essential to Success, speech before Coosa PTA) Sibley deserves credit for his support of public education. Despite Georgia’s fierce division on this issue, he steered the state away from the certain, disastrous consequences of closing the public schools. He did these actions not as a champion of human rights, however, but as a pragmatic commercial and civil leader. Sibley and other businessmen like him openly supported segregation and outright racist attitudes. The recommendations of the Sibley Commission, that is, to follow the path of a “restructured resistance” in reality only perpetuated de facto segregation in Georgia far longer than continued outright resistance could have. Furthermore, these “commercial-civic elites” were insulated from any meaningful effects of integration, even on a token basis, due to the majority-white neighborhoods where they lived and the still-segregated private schools where they sent their children to school (Not another little rock, 215). These elites were not alone either in their pragmatic decision to protect law and order and their own bottom line by embracing mitigated integration. While Georgia’s public school system and continued law and order does owe themselves to the pragmatic decisions of men like John Sibley, it would be a mistake to celebrate them as heroes of a movement they did not support, or as proponents of ideas they did not claim.

Appendix A: 

Witnesses from Rome and Floyd County before the Sibley Commission,

March 10, 1960

Source: “Meeting of the General Assembly Committee on Schools, March 10, 1960.” John A. Sibley Papers, Box 128, Folder 1, Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Atlanta, Ga.

  • E.R. Moulton – County Educational Association of Lindale (73)
    • Said he contacted 192 teachers out of 260, only 3 wanted to close the school
  • E.K. Grass – Rome Central Labor Union (73) * Wanted to close schools
    • The Union voted unanimously to keep laws as is and close the schools. When Moutlon said so, applause broke out.
  • Randall Minor – Chamber of Commerce (75-76)
    •  22 board of directors, 19 contacted, 18 supported local option. 
    • Read the H.G. Wells quote “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.”
  • Robert Norton – Rome Board of Education (77-78)
    • 11 of 12 schools support local option, as do all members of the BOE
  • Mrs. Georgia Poulson – Rome League of Women Voters (78-79)
    • 70 members in Rome and 1500 across the state (who approved of her speaking on their behalf) supported the local option
  • Leon Gresham – American Legion (82) * Wanted to close schools
    • Roughly 1000 members, voted to close the schools
  • George W. Blalock – Representing himself and family (83) * Wanted to close schools
    • “I associate with the colored people every day and work with them. My preference is private schools at all costs.”
    • “Before I would send my school – my child to school with any colored child, I would keep him home. 
  • Jule Levin – Self and Family (126) * supported integration, civil rights
  • Saved and added into files
  • Rev. R.C. Booley – Cherokee Presbytery (127-128) * supported integration
    • Presbytery supported local option, as did his own church and the Georgia Council on Churches
  • Harold Clodfelter – West Rome High School Parent’s Club (128-130)
    • 6 of 7 contacted directors and officers supported
    • Individually polled labor workers in all of the major plants. It was not comprehensive or scientific or total, but roughly three quarters supported not closing the schools
  • A.M. Von Allman – Rome Christian Council (120-132) * supported integration, civil rights
    • The Rome Council had unanimous support for uninterrupted schools, and 249 of 250 christian churches in Georgia voted to support “the law of the land,” meaning the Brown Decision and those Civil Rights legislations adopted by other states
  • Mildred Knight – Herself (132) 
    • Runs a nursery and supports the local option 
  • N.J. Rice – Self (132-133)
    • Local Option
  • Nathan Norris – PTA of Garden Lake (133)
    • Local Option
  • Keith McClean – Self (134)
    • Local Option
  • Paul L. King – Self – 135 * voted to close schools
    • Close schools and support integration
  • William Ridges – West End PTA (135)
    • Local Option
  • Raymond J. Ball – Self (136)
    • Local Option
  • Rev. Harold McDaniel – Self (136-137)
    • Local Option