Brown on Harvey, 'A Question of Justice: New South Governors and Education'

Gordon Harvey. A Question of Justice: New South Governors and Education. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002. viii + 229 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-1157-5.

Reviewed by Sarah H. Brown (Department of History, Florida Atlantic University, MacArthur Campus)
Published on H-Florida (March, 2003)

A Question of the Zeitgeist, at Long Last

A Question of the Zeitgeist, at long last

"[I]n my opinion, most of us in the South recognize that this is a new day and that we cannot continue to operate in the mood of yesterday."[1]

An undergraduate came to me one day recently with her essay proposal for a course on the 1950s: she would write about the integration of Florida's schools in the first few years after the Brown decision. I smiled--would that such a story could be written about the fifties or the sixties. No political leadership existed in ostensibly "progressive" Florida--or in the rest of the unreconstructed South--to faithfully follow the mandate of Brown in those decades. Some governors, like Leroy Collins in Florida and Ernest Hollings in South Carolina, begged their constituents to obey the law and eschew violence after 1954, but none actually ordered state or local school boards to consider ways and means of integration. Had they done this, U.S. Senators and Congressmen would have captained the tar and feathering parties, leading parades of state legislators and local officials. Collins, who vetoed massive resistance legislation and stood up for the rights of students at Tallahassee sit-ins during his last year in office, paid the ultimate political price when he ran for public office again in 1968.

Gordon Harvey has written a book about three governors who finally did face up to the problems and possibilities of the South's post-Brown unitary school systems; these three were reformers who focused on the poorly funded and badly managed educational systems they inherited. The men chosen for the book--Albert Brewer of Alabama, Reubin Askew of Florida, and John West of South Carolina--faced this task with differing degrees of enthusiasm and commitment. Brewer wanted better schools in Alabama, but as successor to Lurleen Wallace's short sad term as George's proxy, he always labored in the "malignant, ominous shadow" of Wallace, his former mentor (p. 34). George Wallace's popularity and his re-election after a bitterly racist 1970 gubernatorial campaign not only denied Brewer a full term, but limited his ability to promote a reform agenda. Brewer served somewhat earlier and sounded a lot less progressive in race matters than the other two men studied here. (Brewer became governor in 1968, West in 1970, and Askew in 1972.) Publicly, at least, Brewer did not accept the inevitability of genuine, substantive school integration, and he attempted to thwart federal court orders. He determined that "the state would 'exhaust every legal remedy'"(p. 27) against court orders that rejected "choice" or mandated black-white teacher and student ratios, and he called the Justice Department the "socialistic" ally of Judge Frank Johnson of Montgomery's U.S. District (p. 24). When the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that court's decision, he complained that the federal courts treated murderers and communists better than Alabama's school children; though, as Harvey points out, what he "failed to mention was that Alabama, and the South, had its day in court in 1954" (p. 38).

Although Harvey explains the chaos precipitated by the mixture of court timetables with white resistance, and shows the political limits under which the governor strained, Brewer's repeated "claims that the court orders violated Alabama's constitutional rights" seem to set him apart from West and Askew (p. 27). One reads his story with some incredulity, occasionally questioning his inclusion in a book about reform governors. But Alabama schools cried out for reform: its educational system had been neglected for so long that the state languished near the bottom of nearly every indicator, from literacy to teacher salaries and per pupil expenditures (in this category Alabama ranked last in 1969, below it's perennial rival, Mississippi). Brewer came into office determined to improve the opportunities of all Alabaman school children. He feared, Harvey tells us, that integration forced quickly on community schools, especially mandated ratios and busing, would undermine white support for public schools. As a result, whites would reject the changes in taxation and school finance needed for his education reform package. Perhaps moderate rhetoric could not have made Brewer's case in the legislature. During his term in office, Alabama's legislature passed most of Brewer's reform proposals affecting state funding for education and the quality of Alabama's schools--twenty nine bills became law, including an "equalization" funding statute not unlike the Minimum Foundation Program passed twenty years earlier in Florida, an expansion of free textbooks, and salary increases for the state's teachers. Education funding increased considerably, despite the governor's inability to enact property tax reform. Black as well as white teachers supported his re-election bid. Harvey believes that, had Brewer won in 1970, he might have initiated some improvements in Alabama's regressive tax structure. Brewer was an educational reformer, and perhaps, considering the tenor of the administrations which preceded and succeeded him, we should regard him a 1960s "moderate" and a trailblazer, Alabama style.

John West of South Carolina, unlike Brewer, defeated his segregationist opponent in 1970 and entered office that year as a known moderate. Conservatively, he discouraged government interference in local or personal affairs; but he understood that the time for change had come. If government provides the right atmosphere, he claimed in his inaugural address, the people will come around: "Basic to all our hopes and aspirations is the willingness of our people to accept change, and to gain a new respect for the opinions and rights of all people" (p. 121). Racial tension escalated in the two years before West's inauguration, however South Carolina's schools, already under court order, had begun a difficult but systematic process of integration under his predecessor. West presided over some knotty problems with individual counties as integration proceeded--white flight, "tracking" programs that subtly discriminated, the loss of African-American schools with their symbols and cultural traditions, and high dropout rates among black high school students. On the one hand, West gained kudos for a remedial program administered by South Carolina State University call "Helping Hand;" on the other hand, West rejected busing as a means to integration (though when pushed, he enforced the law) and reacted quickly and firmly when violence broke out in newly integrated schools. By 1971, 99 percent of South Carolina's white students and 93 percent of its black students attended integrated schools.

Those schools had always been chronically underfunded and, like Alabama, South Carolina lost large numbers of teachers each year to better paying jobs in neighboring states. During his four years in office West rhetorically championed educational reform but sparred continually with representatives of teacher associations, endured a teacher walk-out, and begrudgingly accepted an "investigation" of South Carolina's schools by the National Education Association. The NEA pointed to South Carolina's outdated property tax assessment system as the primary problem in state funding for education, but West never addressed ad valorem taxation or a long term solution to school financing in his proposals. His agenda for raising teacher salaries and increasing general educational funding originated not in reform of funding or new taxation but from a huge increase in the prosperity of the state that began in West's second year in office. A true "New South" governor of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century variety, West tirelessly sought new investment for his state, as had his immediate predecessors. While he presided in Columbia, industrial development worth about three billion dollars and more than sixty thousand new jobs came to South Carolina. In 1972 he used an $83 million surplus to fund "an expansion of kindergarten, vocational and technical education, [and] special classes for students with disabilities," and a pay raise averaging $500 for teachers (p. 166). West took pride that "the manner in which [South Carolina's] fiscal rewards were used to meet the 'human needs' of the state" (p. 168).

Reubin Askew stands out as the southern liberal of this threesome. Askew followed Claude Kirk, Florida's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, who had emulated George Wallace's "stand at the schoolhouse door" in Manatee County in 1970, and, after Askew's inauguration, led a group called Parents Against Forced Busing. Harvey credits Florida's relatively small black population (15.3 percent in 1970) and Leroy Collins' dignified acceptance of change ten years earlier as factors in Askew's ability to tame the unstable school situation he inherited; but Kirk's undignified resistance probably also helped to convince many members of Florida's diverse citizenry to acquiesce to court ordered integration. Under Kirk, Florida filed a brief against busing in the appeal of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg and looked for ways to withhold funds from schools districts that used busing to achieve integration. But the new governor told a University of Florida graduation audience in 1971 that "inadequate and artificial as busing was, it still presented the best solution for desegregating schools.... 'The law demands,' declared Askew, 'and rightly so, that we put an end to segregation ... we must demonstrate good faith in doing just that'" (p. 70). Some Floridians were listening to presidential candidate George Wallace speak in Jacksonville during the very hour the governor spoke in Gainesville, and many disagreed, of course, and wrote the governor with their objections. But afterwards Askew pulled off a kind of coup. When the legislature passed a bill placing a "forced busing straw vote" (in favor of an anti-busing amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was part of Wallace's agenda) on the 1972 ballot, the governor knew the question would probably win and then be used for years to bolster resistance. Given its wide publicity as a democratic opportunity, vetoing the bill would be political suicide. Instead, he insisted that the word "forced" be removed from the question to be submitted to the voters, and added this second question: "Do you favor providing an equal opportunity for all children regardless of race, creed, color, or place of residence and oppose a return to a dual system of public schools" (p. 76)? Askew crusaded across the state against the busing amendment, speaking tirelessly against a wide array of opponents. And he lost, but he also won. George Wallace won the Democratic primary in Florida and every county voted for the anti-busing amendment. But 79 percent of Florida's voters voted in favor of equal educational opportunity, which won in every county except Orange. Over and over during his eight years as governor Askew took issues over the heads of the legislature to the voters. The busing issue was his biggest defeat, yet even in that instance he proved an important point. And Harvey points out that "although many expected his busing stance to doom him politically, his favorable rating actually rose" (p. 88).

Askew's campaign for a corporate income tax may have been his greatest political victory, and the new tax abetted educational reform. But a change in the way the state distributed money to countries for education was the most important school issue. In 1973 Askew's appointed Citizens Committee for Education presented the legislature with the results of their two-year study on educational finance, "the most far-reaching reform program since 1947" (p. 93). First among its proposals was the restructure of the state's Board of Education, then dominated by Florida's elected cabinet, an institution which had wide support among legislators and bureaucrats. This part of the reform lost. But after statewide hearings and a court battle that clarified legal questions, the finance portions of the CCE's proposal fared better in the legislature, and by 1973 the state had done away with its post-war Minimum Foundation Plan. Henceforth "[t]he state would fund education by the student." With some adjustments, "[t]he amount the state set annually to spend on each child was simply multiplied by the number of children in a district" (p. 106). The legislature passed the historic Florida Educational Finance Plan, which made the "base rate" at which Florida funded public schools $587 per pupil, and approved a "whopping" $200 million increase in educational funding over the previous year ("more," Harvey says, "than Alabama spent on elementary and secondary education fourteen years later") (p. 109). The state also got the power to assist educational financing in poorer counties whose low property tax base reduced local support for schools. Askew's state clearly led the South in educational reform in the period under study.

This book covers a crucial time in the history of the South, a time when, after years of delay, "Questions of Justice" in education were finally addressed by southern governors. The spirit of the times (and the federal courts) not only overtook white resistance, that modern spirit also highlighted historically deficient educational systems that impeded state progress. Harvey invites us to look at the political environment in which these three governors worked to affect educational reform as well as to view their limits, their allies, enemies, and constituencies. In each case the governor saw that the time for hesitation had passed--though in the case of Brewer, at least in this reader's opinion, the governor's commitment to a brighter future for Alabaman children did not lead his constituents to a better understanding of the more important need to address race and social justice issues. He did not foster the attitudinal changes that Askew and West encouraged.

Because he is the preeminent southern politician of the era, one cannot help wondering if including Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (1971-75) might have made the book a better, broader view of the South. But much has been written about Carter (for the gubernatorial years, especially Gary Fink's Prelude to the Presidency). Perhaps a future edition will look at education in Georgia, North Carolina, or other states in the early seventies. But this caveat does not diminish the importance of Harvey's book. Even if stories of the finance debates sometimes make thorny reading, the book is accessible and will be helpful to historians of the modern South. These three substantial political portraits add immeasurably to our understanding of the South in the years when, at long last, it began to institute and fund real unitary public school systems.


[1]. Reubin Askew in 1971, quoted on page 71.

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Citation: Sarah H. Brown. Review of Harvey, Gordon, A Question of Justice: New South Governors and Education. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. March, 2003.

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