The Declaration of Constitutional Principles (Southern Manifesto) | Study Guide

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The Declaration of Constitutional Principles (Southern Manifesto) | Summary & Analysis



Protesting the Brown v. Board of Education Rulings

On March 12, 1956, Representative Howard Smith (1883–1976) of Virginia and Senator Walter F. George (1878–1957) of Georgia introduced the Declaration of Constitutional Principles in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively. Both men were Democrats. The declaration stated the opposition of Southern members of Congress to the two Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education that called for the end of segregated public schools. The declaration asserted that the court had unconstitutionally abused its power and wrongfully involved the federal government in education, a matter of state concern.


The Civil War (1861–65) ended with the defeat of the Confederate states and, soon after, with the abolition of slavery in the United States. While Congress initially took steps to protect the rights of African Americans in the South, that effort quickly dwindled. By the late 1870s, white people opposed to racial equality once again controlled state governments in the South. They began to pass laws that imposed racial segregation—the separation of people of color and whites—in transportation and schools.

In 1892 Homer Plessy (1862–1925), who was of mixed race, challenged a Louisiana law that called for people of color and white people to ride in separate streetcars by insisting on riding in a "whites only" car. Convicted of breaking the law, Plessy appealed, and his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1896 the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case, Plessy v. Ferguson. The court majority held that "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional, giving an official Supreme Court blessing to segregation.

NAACP Challenges to Segregation

In the mid-20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to challenge segregation laws in court. In 1950 the NAACP won an important case, Sweatt v. Painter, in which the Supreme Court decided that a separate law school established by the state of Texas for African Americans was unequal to the University of Texas Law School. The court said that the state failed to provide equal protection under the law, thus violating the 14th Amendment, which had been ratified in 1868.

The NAACP then challenged segregated public schools by suing five different school districts. The Supreme Court bundled the cases under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1954 the court ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," overturning Plessy. The next year the court issued a follow-up ruling, called Brown II, declaring that school districts should move to end segregation "with all deliberate speed."

Southern Resistance and the Southern Manifesto

White Southerners objected strenuously to the Brown decisions. Senator Harry Byrd (1887–1966), a Democrat from Virginia, called for a program of "massive resistance" to the rulings. Several states moved education funding to newly formed private schools that were white-only schools deemed private in name only. To show solidarity with this effort, Byrd gathered the backing of members of Congress from the Southern states for a statement of principles.

Democratic senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (1902–2003) drafted the document that became the Declaration of Constitutional Principles. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia (1897–1971), also a Democrat, revised the draft into its final form. A total of 19 senators and 77 House members endorsed the document.

All the signers came from states that had belonged to the Confederacy. They included the entire congressional delegations of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as several individuals from Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. All but two of the signers were Democrats, as that party dominated Southern politics at the time. (This had been the case since the end of the Civil War, when Southerners rejected the Republican Party, "the party of Lincoln," that had brought about an end to slavery.) Southern Democrats such as Thurmond called themselves "Dixiecrats" to differentiate themselves from other factions of the Democratic Party that had begun calling for support of civil rights initiatives. The Dixiecrats had walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention in protest of calls by the party and its nominee, President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), to support civil rights. Eventually, both the Democratic and the Republican Parties went through significant changes, resulting in a shift in the party allegiances of some regions of the country. Thurmond and some other Dixiecrats later switched parties to become Republicans.

Claiming an Abuse of Power

The authors of the Declaration of Constitutional Principles begin with highly charged language, proclaiming the court's decision in Brown to be "unwarranted" and an exercise of "naked power." That language sets a strident tone that the rest of the document reinforces. This is an angry polemic, or attack. The tone explains why the document's alternate name is the Southern Manifesto.

The authors say that the founding fathers wisely established a system of checks and balances to prevent government officeholders from abusing their power. The only legitimate way to change the Constitution is through the amendment process, which promotes rational decision-making rather than changes swayed by passions.

The authors declare that the court is abusing its power, infringing on the powers of Congress and the states. Neither the original Constitution nor the 14th Amendment provide for a federal role in education. Further, the same Congress that passed that amendment allowed segregated schools in the District of Columbia, which is under federal control. At the time that amendment was ratified, all states that had substantial African American populations had segregated schools. The authors make these points to try to portray segregation as the natural order. They are not taking a radical position, they claim; they are defending the way things have always been done.

Older Court Cases as Support for Segregation

The authors point out that the Supreme Court decision in Roberts v. City of Boston (1849) upholds segregated schools as constitutionally valid. They use this decision to show that school segregation was prevalent in the North as well as the South.

Next, they cite federal precedents. In 1896 the Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1927 Chief Justice William Howard Taft (1857–1930) led a unanimous court in deciding that segregated schools did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment—the legal basis of the Brown decision. That case—Lum v. Rice—involved a Chinese American student who was denied entry into an all-white school in Mississippi and required to attend a school set aside for students of color.

The authors cite these earlier cases to show the weight of precedent that the court was overriding in Brown v. Board of Education. In the American justice system, the principle of stare decisis (Latin for "let the decision stand") holds that court decisions on a particular legal question should determine the outcome in later cases involving the same principle. In the view of the declaration's authors, the court, in Brown, had overthrown that vital legal principle by rejecting the Plessy and Lum precedents.

Segregation, the authors continue, had been upheld in other cases as well. It became a way of life that should not be disturbed. They solemnly declare that parents have a fundamental right to direct the lives of their children, a right no government should interfere with. Notably, the authors support this right only for white parents. They have no hesitation in denying the same right to African American parents.

Accusations of Meddling

The authors argue that in Brown the justices on the court are unjustly imposing their own ideas on society without any legal basis. They say that the decision harms relations between white people and African Americans, which had been friendly and peaceful until the court interfered. People from outside the South are meddling in the region, causing tension and unease. Without naming names, the authors here are likely alluding to the NAACP and the emerging civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68). While the claim that previously race relations had been harmonious is unsupported, it was clear that in 1956 the situation in the South was becoming dangerous and violent. As African Americans began to organize a civil rights movement, they met fierce resistance from white people, especially in the South. The Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, spearheaded by King and the NAACP, had begun in December 1955. King's house was bombed in January 1956. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, had been brutally lynched by two white men in Mississippi. Shocking photographs from his open-casket funeral, held in September 1955, had been published and widely circulated.

The claim that civil rights activists were "outside meddlers" disturbing the peace and harmony prevalent in the South was a frequent refrain of segregationists. Alabama's George Wallace (1919–98), who won election as governor on a segregationist platform, used the phrase in the mid-1960s. This claim completely ignored the African American parents who took part in the five lawsuits that were bundled into Brown and others, the thousands of African Americans in the South who joined the civil rights movement, and the millions who suffered under the injustice of segregation.

Claiming the Right to Resist Integration

The authors close the declaration with statements of principle. The Constitution—as they interpret it—is the supreme law of the land. They object to the Supreme Court's decision, which they believe violates the Constitution. They support each state's efforts to lawfully resist integration, although this view runs counter to the Constitution's separation of powers that gives the Supreme Court the authority to determine what the laws mean. The authors want the support of the people in other states because later, other states' rights might be violated in a similar way. The authors proclaim the power of states over certain areas of life under the American federal system. They plan to take legal steps to try to overturn the ruling and to prevent the use of force to implement it—an empty promise, since there is actually nothing that Congress can do in such a matter. They ask the people of their states to avoid causing disorder.

Impact of the Declaration

The declaration had little impact in terms of laws or policies. Desegregation became the law of the land, supported by the federal government. Indeed, the year after the declaration was issued, the federal government used force to impose court-ordered integration. Governor Orval Faubus (1910–94) of Arkansas called out the state National Guard in an attempt to prevent a handful of African American students from integrating a Little Rock high school. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), despite his own misgivings about the Brown decision, would not accept defiance of federal authority. He ordered U.S. troops to the city to allow the students to go to the school and attend classes.

However, the document did have a major impact on parts of American society. In the Deep South, the "massive resistance" campaign was effective. By the mid-1960s, only about 2 percent of African American students in the South attended integrated schools. The declaration was a signal to Southerners from their political leaders that desegregation would be fought. In this sense, it had an enormous impact on hearts and minds in that region of the country.

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