In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was not “separate but equal” but instead an unconstitutional practice. This decision infuriated many, especially in the South, who thought that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds. Included among the disgusted was Congressman Basil Lee Whitener, an outspoken “Dixiecrat” (a member of the Democratic Party who supported segregation as well as socially conservative positions).
Members of Congress who opposed integration did not have the political power to pass any sort of Constitutional amendment to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling. The frustration of Whitener and fellow Dixiecrats only intensified as integration began across the South.
Another ruling in 1962 further infuriated social conservatives throughout the country and led some to seek extraordinary solutions. In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled in a six-to-one decision that school-sponsored prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion, stated his objection to the prayer instituted by the state of New York thus:
We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty.
Justice Black’s constitutional logic may have been sound, but his rationale did not mollify the anger of social conservatives who balked at the Court’s perceived abridgment of the right to pray at any given location.
Congressman Whitener received petitions from his constituents, including the document shown on the left in which several North Carolina residents ask for a constitutional amendment to re-legalize state-sponsored prayer in public schools. In part, the petitioners claimed that, “Our Nation was founded upon God and has prospered more than any nation in the world. History has proven that a Nation That Forgets God Will Fall” (emphasis in original). This document found a sympathetic ear in Congressman Whitener. In fact, Whitener introduced one of many House resolutions that included a constitutional amendment overturning Engel v. Vitale. The proposed amendment that gained the most political traction was one officially introduced in 1964 by Congressman Frank Becker (R-NY). The Becker Amendment read in part:
Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school . . .
Whitener’s constituents gathered their support behind the Becker Amendment. Religious groups such as Project America: International Christian Youth – USA sent a large number of form letters to Whitener’s office asking the congressman to support the Becker Amendment. One such letter is shown below:
As one might expect, Whitener was a fervent supporter of the Becker Amendment. However, most of Congress did not share that position. A campaign against the amendment, ironically led by the National Council of Churches and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, effectively killed the amendment’s momentum.
Ultimately, it is true that Whitener’s opposition to integration and enthusiasm for prayer in school went against the policy of the nation. Yet both the Brown v. Board of Education and Engel v. Vitale decisions were crucial events in developing a social conservative movement characterized by a hybridization of small-government ideology with religiously influenced policy recommendations.
Furthermore, as part of the CCC Project, it is important to look not only at the successes of those who fought for civil rights. The context of those successes is, in part, the reaction of those who felt betrayed by their government and how that resentment changed American politics.