Sharfstein on Brown, Massive Resistance, and the Lawyer’s View: A Nashville Story @dsharfstein @VandLRev @vanderbiltlaw

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Vanderbilt Law School, is publishing Brown, Massive Resistance, and the Lawyer’s View: A Nashville Story in volume 74 of the Vandervilt Law Review (2021). Here is the abstract.

This Essay explores the work of attorney Cecil Sims in resisting Nashville school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. As Nashville’s most successful litigator and power broker — founder of one of the city’s most prominent law firms, member of the Davidson County School Board, and trustee of Vanderbilt University and Meharry Medical College — Sims was an independent insider who argued that massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education was unnecessary. Instead, he crafted the “Nashville Plan” for local school boards, a 12-year course of exceedingly gradual desegregation that nominally complied with Brown without integrating the schools in any meaningful way.

The Essay focuses on two aspects of Sims’s practice: his “long history” of civil rights resistance and his much heralded “moderation.” First, his work on issues relating to segregated education was not merely a reaction to Brown. In the late 1940s, as Southern states responded to U.S. Supreme Court decisions desegregating graduate education, Sims assumed a central role in developing complex, formalistic, and nominally race-neutral proposals that would have the effect of keeping education segregated. Just as the Civil Rights Movement began years before Brown, Sims is emblematic the segregated South’s “long history” of resistance to civil rights. While massive resistance moderated in the mid-1960s and assumed more race-neutral forms, Sims’s story suggests that the arguments that massive resistance mellowed into were there all along — lost in the glare, but taking root in the shadows.

Second, while historians have regarded the kind of advocacy in which Sims engaged as moderate, Sims’s pre-Brown positions were criticized as segregationist, obstructionist, and hypocritical. How did his position become a moderate position? The lawlessness of massive resistance moved the goalposts. The construction of Sims’s moderation reveals the utility and legitimating function of extreme white supremacist claims and methods. If ultimately his position prevailed over massive resistance, it also prevailed because of massive resistance.

Finally, the Essay reflects on Sims’s legacy at Vanderbilt Law School. The legal history of resistance to integration in Nashville has a long cast of characters with Vanderbilt Law diplomas — unsurprising for a private university educating white students to assume leadership positions in the Jim Crow South. Even so, Sims stands out. For more than half a century, Sims was a singular force in turning Vanderbilt Law School into an elite, national institution. Making sense of his choices is a first step towards a candid and transparent account of the Law School’s relationship to Nashville’s infrastructure of inequality and the start of a necessary conversation about the responsibility of Vanderbilt and its community of students and teachers to Nashville and beyond.

Download the essay from SSRN at the link.