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Southern Stalemate

Five Years without Public Education in Prince Edward County, Virginia

In 1959, Virginia’s Prince Edward County closed its public schools rather than obey a court order to desegregate. For five years, black children were left to fend for themselves while the courts decided if the county could continue to deny its citizens public education. Investigating this remarkable and nearly forgotten story of local, state, and federal political confrontation, Christopher Bonastia recounts the test of wills that pitted resolute African Americans against equally steadfast white segregationists in a battle over the future of public education in America.
Beginning in 1951 when black high school students protested unequal facilities and continuing through the return of whites to public schools in the 1970s and 1980s, Bonastia describes the struggle over education during the civil rights era and the human suffering that came with it, as well as the inspiring determination of black residents to see justice served. Artfully exploring the lessons of the Prince Edward saga, Southern Stalemate unearths new insights about the evolution of modern conservatism and the politics of race in America.

Read the introduction (PDF format). 

352 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Education: Education--General Studies

History: American History

Sociology: Social Change, Social Movements, Political Sociology


“What happened in Prince Edward County in the late 1950s and early 1960s was nothing less than an American tragedy. Yet it’s long lingered on the margins of civil rights history, a footnote to the standard story of struggle and triumph. With Christopher Bonastia’s careful, enlightening, and sympathetic new study, it finally has the book it deserves.”

Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

“Well written and engaging, this book richly chronicles an incident that has been underexplored in the vast civil rights movement literature. Bonastia goes beyond a welcome general political historical account to develop a close analysis of white justifications of school closings and the use of legal mobilization strategies to pursue movement goals. Southern Stalemate makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of civil rights era contention that will be of interest to historians, social scientists, and education scholars alike.” —David Cunningham, Brandeis University

David Cunningham, Brandeis University

“A fine book that captures the intensity of the struggle among the white segregationists, the NAACP, and the black community during the years of the school closing, Southern Stalemate sheds new light on the civil rights movement and this important case. It represents an important step in the quest to better understand race, social movement, and legal scholarship.”

Aldon Morris, Northwestern University

“In this absorbing and meticulously researched narrative, Christopher Bonastia brings us into a forgotten yet vitally important moment in the civil rights movement, when a Virginia county abandoned its public schools rather than integrate them. Southern Stalemate is a grand addition to the literature on the civil rights struggle.”

Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America

“Carefully researched, thoughtfully conceived, and beautifully written, Southern Stalemate is a book that a reader will not easily forget.”

Virginia Magazine

“This study of an often-overlooked event should become a staple part of the reading lists of the modern civil rights era. [Bonastia] possesses an engaging writing style that allows readers to move through the murky waters of the past with relative ease. . . . Highly recommended.”


 “Southern Stalemate is an insightful account of the dynamics behind this notorious example of massive resistance.”

Journal of American History

Southern Stalemate provides an essential, if frequently neglected, analysis. Those of us who think we know something about the civil rights movement should not ignore this book.”

Journal of Southern History

“An important addition to scholarship about the American Civil Rights movement, Christopher Bonastia’s Southern Stalemate offers insights into the startling dismantling of public education in Prince Edward County, Virginia, from 1959 to 1964. . . . The depth and detail of the book will be valuable to scholars of social movements and political rhetoric.”

American Journal of Sociology

 “A sophisticated political—and legal—history.”

American Historical Review

 “Not only does Christopher Bonastia provide the defini­tive history of these events, but he also reveals the eerie discursive similarities between whites’ arguments justifying these school closings and today’s neolib­eral discourse advocating privatization of public schools. The book takes read­ers through the history of the region, whites’ halfhearted efforts to “equalize” school spending to avert desegregation, student-led school strikes protesting inequalities, whites’ massive resistance to desegregation, and the complicated court cases leading whites to close the schools and subsequent ones attempting to reopen them. Bonastia provides details of the educational lives of students shut out of PEC’s public schools, black activism during the closings, the schools’ reopening, and the consequences of the closings into the present, including the unveiling of a monument to the 1951 student strikers. Bonastia does all this while tying local efforts to national civil rights activism and white resistance and untangling the complex legal cases over jurisdiction and whether courts can order that taxpayer funds be used for public schools. As a result, Southern Stalemate represents an exceptional work of history with very few stones left unturned.”

Social Forces

 “Insightful and thoroughly researched. . . . One of the great strengths of this book is Bonastia’s facility in moving between the various actors and institutions involved in the desegregation struggle. Although ostensibly covering a relatively focused topic—a case study of a single Virginia county—Southern Stalemate is an impressively ambitious and wide-ranging work of scholarship.”

Journal of American Studies

Table of Contents


Introduction : Why Prince Edward County?

1    White Supremacy and Black Resistance in Prince Edward County and Virginia
2    No Middle Ground : The Rapid Ascent of Massive Resistance
3    Breaking the Basket of Eggs: The Collapse of Massive Resistance
4    “The Doors Was Chained, So I Knew Then”: Educational Options during the Closing Years
5     The Federal Government Confronts the “Lone Pocket of Ludicrous Resistance”
6    “Clean as a Hound’s Tooth”: White Justifications for the School Closings
7     From the Courtroom to the Street: Black Activism in Prince Edward
8    The Grudging Resumption of Public Education

Conclusion : A County ahead of Its Time?


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