The Byrd Organization's greatest strength was in the rural areas of the state. It never gained a significant foothold in the independent cities, nor with the emerging suburban middle-class of Virginians after World War II.
Using legal challenges, by the 1940s, black attorneys who included notables such as Thurgood Marshall, Oliver W. Hill, William H. Hastie, Spottswood W. Robinson III and Leon A. Ranson were gradually winning civil rights cases based upon federal constitutional issues. Among these was the case of Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which was actually initiated by students who stepped forward to protest poor conditions at R.R. Moton High School, Farmville, Virginia. Their case became a portion of those heard as part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. The Brown decision declared that state laws which established separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities and that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby paving the way for integration and encouraging the Civil Rights Movement.
Senator Byrd, representing Virginia in the U.S. Congress, waged vocal and bitter opposition to the high court's ruling and subsequent actions to implement public school integration in Virginia. Leading the state's Conservative Democratic political machine, on February 24, 1956, he declared a campaign which became known as "Massive Resistance" to avoid compliance. To implement Massive Resistance, in 1956, the Byrd Organization-controlled Virginia General Assembly passed a series of laws.
One of these laws forbade any integrated schools from receiving state funds, and authorized the governor to order closed any such school. Another of these laws established a three-member Pupil Placement Board that would determine which school a student would attend. The decision of these Boards was based almost entirely on race. Another facet of these laws was the creation of tuition grants which could be given to students so they could attend a private school of their choice; again, in practice, this meant support of all-white schools that appeared as a response to forced integration (the "segregation academies.")
Later in 1956, the NAACP then filed lawsuits around the state in response to these laws in an attempt to force integration of Virginia schools. By 1958, things had come to a head. Federal courts ordered public schools in Warren County, the cities of Charlottesville and Norfolk and Arlington County to integrate.
On January 19, 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared most of the General Assembly-passed massive resistance laws unconstitutional, ending massive resistance at the state level. At that point, Almond realized that opposition to desegregation was ultimately futile. In landmark speech, Governor Almond publicly reversed the defiant stance taken only a few months earlier. By changing the state's policy, he earned the wrath of the Byrd Organization and Senator Byrd, who later tried to block his appointment as a federal judge by President John F. Kennedy.
Following Governor Almond's speech in late January, the public schools that had been closed were re-opened in February. In 1960, the original three members of the Pupil Placement Board resigned, and the Board was ended by the General Assembly in 1966.
The public schools in counties in the western part of the state where there were fewer blacks were integrated largely without incident in the early 1960s. Notably, there were no incidents in Virginia which required National Guard intervention.
Other segregation academies that were formed included Tomahawk Academy (in Chesterfield County), Huguenot Academy (in Powhatan), Amelia Academy, Isle of Wight Academy, Brunswick Academy, Southampton Academy, Tidewater Academy in Sussex County, and York Academy (in King and Queen County).
During the interruption in access to Prince Edward's public schools, white students were able to get educated at the Prince Edward Academy, which operated as the de facto school system, enrolling K-12 students at a number of facilities throughout the county. Even after the re-opening of the public schools, the Academy remained segregated, losing its tax-exempt status in 1978. In 1986, it accepted black students. Today it is known as Fuqua School.
The Richmond City Public Schools had attempted various schemes to avoid integration such as dual attendance zones and the "Freedom of Choice" Plan, but in 1970, District Court Judge Robert Merhige, Jr., ordered a desegregation busing scheme established to integrate the city schools. During the years immediately preceding, after an unsuccessful annexation suit against Henrico County to the north, the city successfully annexed 23 square miles of neighboring Chesterfield County to its south on January 1, 1970 in what was later determined in federal courts to be an attempt to stem the white flight that was occurring, as well as dilute black political strength. However, beginning the following school year, thousands of white students did not go to the city's schools, instead attending existing and newly formed private schools and/or moving outside the city limits.
In the federal courts, a forced consolidation of the Richmond City, Chesterfield County and Henrico County public school districts was proposed and approved by Judge Merhige in 1971, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this decision, barring most busing schemes that made students cross county/city boundaries. (Note: Since 1871, Virginia has had independent cities which are not politically located within counties, although some are completely surrounded geographically by a single county. This distinctive and unusual arrangement was pivotal in the Court of Appeals decision). Richmond City Schools then went through a series of attendance plans and magnet school programs. By 1986, Judge Merhige approved a system of essentially neighborhood schools, ending Virginia's legal struggles with segregation.
In 1970, the Norfolk City Public Schools and several other Virginia communities were also subjected to busing schemes, also returning to more or less neighborhood school plans some years later.