It Didn’t End with Brown v. Board: The Uphill Battle for School Desegregation
On May 11, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case over the issue of school desegregation. He stated, “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The court’s decision was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
So, where did AAUW fit into all of this, being an organization founded on the principle of equality in education?
By far the strongest AAUW statement in support of the court’s decision came, surprisingly, from below the Mason-Dixon line. AAUW member, sociologist, and historian Guion Griffis Johnson spearheaded an integration plan on behalf of the AAUW North Carolina Division.
Frances Guion Griffis was born April 11, 1900, in Wolfe City, Texas. She attended Baylor College for Women (now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor) and then moved with her husband, sociologist Guy Benton Johnson, to the Tar Heel State to pursue her doctorate in sociology. The couple worked at the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina. Griffis Johnson researched and wrote the pivotal 1937 work Antebellum North Carolina: A Social History. Still consulted today, this historical text presents the history of the state from an approach which we would find familiar today, but which was quite revolutionary at the time: She focused on the lives of everyday people who made up the state, including the stories of women and African Americans and the lives they led.
During her time in North Carolina, Johnson was also active in several volunteer organizations including AAUW. She was vice president of the North Carolina Division from 1950 to 1954 and she also served on the national AAUW Social and Economic Issues Committee. So, how does any of this relate to the Brown decision? Because Johnson was also a vocal supporter of school desegregation in a Southern state that was struggling with the process of integration.
Several months prior to the Brown decision, Johnson, on behalf of the North Carolina State Division, wrote a series of recommendations. They were written so that AAUW branches could serve as mediators in their communities to assist schools with a peaceful transition to integration. Branches could consult these recommendations and then work on a positive plan that would reduce racial tensions rather than aggravate them. The state division also offered a workshop to help local branches proceed with their recommended plans.
Johnson’s work did not stop there. After the Brown decision came the Pearsall Plan, a series of laws proposed by a committee in the North Carolina state legislature that would provide a loophole excusing students from attending integrated schools. The Pearsall Plan would basically nullify the Brown decision. With Johnson’s help, the AAUW Winston-Salem (NC) Branch became a leader in the opposition to the Pearsall Plan, writing to and pleading with the governor. The branch also created educational television programs before the state referendum opposing the adoption of the plan that received publicity. Unfortunately, the Pearsall Plan eventually passed (and stayed until it was ruled unconstitutional in 1969), but the branch’s effort stands out as a courageous one.
In a 1974 oral history interview for the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South project, Johnson proudly stated that “AAUW was the only organization in the state to oppose the Pearsall Plan, which was proposed by the (Gov. Luther) Hodges Administration to delay or nullify the Supreme Court decision of 1954.”
Johnson fits in well with the historical narrative of civil rights-pioneering AAUW women we know and love. She confronted serious social problems of her day, assisting her adopted state during the civil rights movement. She never received any accolades or stood in the limelight for her efforts, but she always remained true to her beliefs.
If you would like to learn more about Johnson’s life, you can listen to the full interview online.