Virginius Dabney and the Problem of the White Moderate

Photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. getting arrested

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.”

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. He’d been arrested for violating a judge’s order banning any marches in the city. King, who had come to Birmingham to lead marches against segregation, purposefully and willfully ignored that order and was promptly arrested and jailed. So there he sat.

Friends smuggled newspapers into King. To his shock and dismay he read a “Call for Unity” from a group of clergymen who urged an end to the marches and protests; there was a new city administration, and “Negroes” should give them time to act. Withdraw from the protests, slow down, and give the new white government time to do the right thing. King was shocked because these were not rabid segregationists; these were his friends and allies. These were ministers who had risked a lot by speaking out against the race baiters like Governor George Wallace and now, while King was jailed, they were urging him to quit? He scrawled his answer in the margins of the newspapers that had been smuggled in. Those scribbles became his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured

King was not addressing newspaper editor Virginius Dabney (1901- 1995) with these remarks, but he might as well have been.

We can discover interesting things about an examination of Dabney as a white moderate. First, we can clearly see the dangers of looking to “moderation” as somehow the solution to polarization. What Driftglass often calls the dangers of “Both Siderism” in our current political culture: that both extremes are equally to blame for a social problem. As we will see, Dabney thought the NAACP was pretty much the equivalent of the Klan in its “extremism” for opposing segregation. Second, we can be deceived into thinking that a “moderate” deserves praise for moderation even if that moderation accomplishes nothing. So, Senator Jeff Flake is receiving praise for speaking out against Trump’s outrages even though Flake shares responsibility for those very outrages. Finally, we can understand how the idea of “moderation” can often mask that the moderate is actually an extremist with nicer clothes and proper language.

Virginius Dabney as a Racial Moderate

Virginius Dabney was from an old Virginia family—his name was “Virginius” fer cryin’ out loud—and he was the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch from the 1930s through the 1960s. His reputation as a southern liberal was cemented even before his newspaper days when he published Liberalism in the South in 1932. At the helm of the Times-Dispatch, he won a Pulitzer for his editorials against Virginia’s poll tax, wrote against lynching, held forth against segregated bus and train facilities, argued for increased funding for black schools and teachers, and was very involved in inter-racial groups that addressed Virginia’s race problem. He also spoke out, on occasion, against the notorious Byrd machine which ran nearly all of Virginia politics. He was the epitome of the southern liberal and racial moderate. He also never, ever abandoned his firm commitment to continued racial segregation.

Dabney was an outstanding spokesman for the equalization of facilities for African Americans. In 1942 he wrote that times were changing and “The constantly improving attitude of the whites toward the desirability of providing decent educational facilities and standards for the blacks is manifest” (Dabney 1942, 459). By the 1940s, however, the NAACP had long abandoned the idea that equalization of facilities could ever be achieved and recognized that equalization entrenched segregation. Thus, Dabney’s quest for equalization was a quest to maintain, not overthrow, segregation.

By the late 1940s, Dabney and other white liberals were “drifting further to the right.” He did so, as always, in the voice of moderation, warning against the extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. Such moderation, however, always meant caving to the demands of white threats. During World War II, when Mississippi African Americans suggested that an African American run for Congress, Representative John Rankin warned (actually incited/threatened) that violence would erupt if they did so. Dabney condemned both sides but when push came to shove, sided with Rankin:

“It is all very well to argue that Rankin is a tub-thumping demagogue of the first water; that this is a democracy; that a black man has as much right, under the Constitution, to aspire to Congress as a white man; and that if white Mississippians don’t know that Negroes are citizens, it is high time they were taught the facts of life. Such an argument is logical if one wishes to ignore all the human factors involved, but those factors cannot be ignored…. If this seems the very negation of democracy, I can only say that I believe I am reflecting accurately the vast preponderance of white sentiment in this section. (Dabney, 1943, 96)

Not yet. That was Dabney’s constant refrain. African Americans should have good schools, but it will take a while and it they will be segregated. African Americans will eventually get to participate in democracy, just not yet. Just wait. Be patient. Your rights will come when white people decide they should. We know best. It was this stance that prompted this response to moderates from King sitting in the Birmingham jail:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Like all white southerners, Dabney claimed to know southern African Americans better than interloping northerners and authorized himself to speak for them. But, because he was a liberal moderate he had slightly better reason to make this claim because he was active in an interracial organization, the Southern Regional Council (SRC) meant to establish better race relations in the south. But, in the early 1950s, when the SRC took an unequivocal stand against segregation, “Without hesitation, Virginius Dabney resigned from the SRC, unwilling to lend his support to an organization that openly repudiated segregation” (Smith 2003, 294). He was joined by about half of the membership of the SRC as white moderates fled the organization.

In 1952, as the school segregation cases of Brown loomed, Dabney was worried that the Court would decide that segregation would have to go. He prayed that would not be the case and argued that the proper solution was the for the Court to order the equalization of facilities but keep segregation. He argued:

“Equalization of facilities will impose a heavy financial strain on many of the states and their political subdivisions, but indications are that most of them are so eager to maintain separate education of their children that they are wilting to shoulder the burden. (Dabney 1952, 103)

Remember, this is the same promise he made ten years earlier: southern whites really do want to equalize these facilities, but it still hadn’t been done. Remember too, that this was the legal responsibility of Virginia since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the requirement of equality was made clear in the Plessy decision in 1896. Dabney recognized that the requirement of equality had not been met, but still asked African Americans to delay their rights because this time white folks really, truly pinky-swear promise! will do the right thing.

When Brown found segregation unconstitutional Dabney thought the decision was fundamentally unsound but had to accept its finality anyway. (Gates 2014, 96). Nonetheless, he continued to warn the nation against proceeding too fast with integration and did so with arguments that led novelist Lillian Smith to write in 1957 that ““My strongest objection to the self-named “moderates” is their bigotry.” For example, in 1957 Dabney wrote in one of the great “I’m not racist but….” pieces:

If I had to single out one anti-integrationist argument that seems to influence the greatest number of Southern whites against mixed schools, it would be the argument that mixed schools lead to “mongrelization.” Other sections of the United States sneer and jeer at this argument.,,,  Now, it may be possible to argue that integration would not increase the likelihood of racial amalgamation-although any visitor to most of the countries of Central and South America with his eyes open would be likely to reach the opposite conclusion. But even if we accept this argument, which I do not, the desirability that every race strive to maintain its own integrity seems to me to be indisputable. There is nothing in my thesis of bigotry or prejudice, and nothing having to do with supposed racial superiority or inferiority. (Dabney 1957, 114)

Even if African Americans were not biologically inferior, they still were criminals and thus our white children were put in danger by their presence:

The criminality and immorality of many Negroes is one of the chief reasons why white Southerners object so strongly to mixed schools. Granted that other races might have similar records if they had been enslaved for centuries and then had had to live in slums and to fight against all manner of handicaps. Yet the fact remains that the Negro crime and illegitimacy rates are everywhere so vastly greater than those of the whites that these statistics have an alarming impact on the minds of parents, especially those of adolescent white boys and girls who would be  thrown into rather intimate contact with colored boys and girls in integrated schools. (Dabney 1957, 114)

In 1958, on the eve of the events recounted by Nancy MacLean, Dabney once against promised that white people would for sure, absolutely, this-time-we-really-mean-it, support “absolute equality” in segregated schooling. He also threw his moderate support behind the closing of public schools, writing in Life magazine, that

Certainly most Virginians are anxious to keep their public school system. They hope that only a few school closings will be needed to show the country at large the depth of their determination to stand for a principle: the right of a state to operate its own public schools on a “separate but equal” basis.

Virginius Dabney was a Segregationist

My brief survey of Dabney on the segregation issue merely corroborates the overwhelming historical consensus on him: he was a segregationist. As the Encyclopedia of Virginia noted, ” Following World War II (1939–1945) [Dabney] generally supported segregation, a position that increasingly put him at odds with the liberal mainstream and the burgeoning civil rights movement.” Randal Patton: “”Patrician whites such as Dabney wanted to reform the segregationist system of segregation itself, not abolish it” (Patton 1992, 377).  J. Douglas Smith: ” Whenever the legal rights of African Americans came into conflict with the wishes and customs of the white South, Dabney defined himself as a segregationist. Consequently, his brand of southern progressivism—characterized by a repudiation of bigotry and an emphasis on the fairer treatment of blacks—lost credibility” (Smith 2003, 276). While I haven’t done a complete search of all historians who researched Dabney, I have not found any who claims he was anything other than a segregationist.

Except one.

Phil Magness, in his continued attempt to undermine Nancy MacLean, claims that Dabney was the “moderately pro-integration editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.”
Wow! Magness apparently has something that cuts against virtually every other historian who has studied Dabney and discovered he was “pro-integration” albeit a moderate one. This is part of Magness’s attempt to insulate his hero, James Buchanan, from the chief journalistic supporter of massive resistance in Virginia, the News-Leader‘s James Jackson Kilpatrick. We’ve been over this before on this blog. Those of you who enjoy detailed examination of historical evidence please continue. Those of you who want the executive summary: Magness is getting desperate if he needs to base his case on  Dabney as “pro-integration.”

First, Magness writes: “Dabney was also an early public supporter of desegregation  who pushed to end the institution on Richmond’s streetcars“, thereby implying, without quite saying, that Dabney also supported school desegregation. Magness is indeed correct about the streetcars, but completely incorrect about the implication he draws from it. His 1943 editorial denouncing such segregation as a tremendous inconvenience to whites and blacks brought strong condemnation from white hardliners to be sure. Yet, such a move did not mean that Dabney opposed segregation as a general principle. Legal historian Michael Klarman pointed specifically to Dabney in this passage:

Interracial contact on buses was transitory, impersonal, and generally involved adults, not children–all features distinguishing it from grade school education. Many white southerners who were adamantly opposed to desegregating  grade schools easily accepted the end of transportation segregation. (p. 222)

Second, Magness writes: “By the late 1950s the owners of the Times-Dispatch – seeking to avoid the ire of the Byrd machine – barred Dabney from openly editorializing against “massive resistance” to school desegregation. ” Lots of reasons for this evidence to be viewed with suspicion:

  1. It relies on Dabney’s own, perhaps self-serving account that this was the case.
  2. Dabney was known for (moderately, naturally) taking on the Byrd machine on the editorial page so that excuse really doesn’t bear up under scrutiny (Dabney 1950).
  3. The two newspapers had the same owner. There is evidence that the publisher withdrew support for massive resistance at the exact same time for both newspapers in a private meeting with Senator Harry Byrd.
  4. Every quotation I have given you here is from national, well-read magazines where Dabney was, presumably, out from under the publisher’s thumb and free to write as he pleased. Those articles do not show him to be a “pro-integrationist” in any way.
  5. Finally, Magness actually contradicts his own case by maintaining this claim. He wants to claim that the papers’ owner prohibited Dabney from speaking out against Byrd while simultaneously claiming that Nutter & Buchanan’s paper was an attack on the Byrd machine which is why Dabney would publish it. That makes little sense.

Third, Magness writes that Dabney “personally adopted a moderate stance on school desegregation that favored limited and gradual introduction of black students into white-majority schools. A source for this claim is completely missing, but, the bigger issue is the notion that this stance should be classified as “pro-integration.” David Mays adopted a similar stance earlier than Dabney precisely because it would maintain segregation except for a tiny handful of students who could be so harrassed and mistreated that they would “voluntarily” withdraw.  After massive resistance ended in 1958 (something else Magness has denied happened) Dabney wrote:

When the impossibility of legal circumvention became obvious to Governor Almomd, he had to choose between two courses: One apparently would result ultimately in shutting down the State’s entire public-school system; the other meant admitting a few Negroes to white schools. He wisely chose the latter alternative. (Dabney 1960, 93)

He assured his readers that “Reason is seen for hope that ‘massive integration’ can be avoided for a long time in the future.” Any more than those few, however would be a disaster:

The interracial stabbings, muggings, rapes and shootings in various Northern cities and the District of Columbia are hardly reassuring to the South. And, whereas the South has been charged with “seeing things under the bed” in its fear that integration will result, eventually, in racial amalgamation, it now has found support for its apprehensions in the statement of Dr. Allan Nevins, world-famous historian at Columbia University. Dr. Nevins says that “frequent” intermarriage will be the “inevitable” result of complete integration. He says he can cite “a dozen analogies from history” (Dabney 1960, 93)

Magness would have us believe that these are the words of someone in favor of integration. On the contrary, these are the words of someone opposed to any meaningful integration whatsoever. Someone who’s opposition was grounded in racist beliefs about African Americans. And someone who Magness claims to be “pro-integration” only so he can  insulate James Buchanan, from any charge that he supported segregation. Why Magness is so committed to this hopeless cause is a mystery.

I will leave you with the words of Reverend King:

 I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.


  • Dabney, Virginius.  1942. “Negro and His Schooling.” Atlantic, April, 459–68.
  • Dabney, Virginius. 1943. “Nearer and Nearer the Precipice.” Atlantic, January, 94–100.
  • Dabney, Virginius. 1950. “What We Think of Senator Byrd’s Machine.” Saturday Evening Post 222 (January):30.
  • Dabney, Virginius. 1952. “Southern Crisis: The Segregation Decision.” Saturday Evening Post 225 (November):40–41, 101–4.
  • Dabney, Virginius. 1957. “Frank Talk to North and South about Integration.” U.S. News & World Report 42 (March):112–18.
  • Dabney, Virginius. 1958. “Virginia’s Peaceable, Honorable Stand.” Life 45 (September): 51.
  • Dabney, Virginius. 1960. “Next in the South’s Schools: Limited Integration.” U.S. News & World Report 48 (January):92–94.


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2 thoughts on “Virginius Dabney and the Problem of the White Moderate

  1. Pingback: Snowflakes are White | Fardels Bear

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