updated 7/16/2009 7:24:28 PM ET 2009-07-16T23:24:28

A Virginia newspaper expressed regret Thursday for supporting a systematic campaign by the state's white political leaders to maintain separate public schools for blacks and whites in the 1950s.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch acknowledged in an editorial that it and its now-defunct sister newspaper, The News Leader, played a central role in the "dreadful doctrine" of Massive Resistance. "The record fills us with regret," the newspaper said.

The newspaper took the unusual step of promoting the editorial on its front page. The editorial was published on the eve of a conference in Richmond marking the 50th anniversary of the end of Massive Resistance, which was dismantled by a 1959 court ruling.

Massive Resistance was Virginia's answer to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation. Endorsed at the highest levels of state government and promoted by U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, the policy cut funds to any school that dared to integrate.

"The hour was ignoble," the editorial says. "Editorials in The News Leader relentlessly championed Massive Resistance and the dubious constitutional arguments justifying its unworthy cause. Although not so intimately engaged, The Times-Dispatch was complicit."

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation's first black elected governor, said in a telephone interview that he found the editorial wanting.

"Some would say better late than never," Wilder said. "Others would say why say anything at all if it's not heartfelt."

He said the editorial is "an admission they were wrong, and I don't think anyone questions that," but he said the newspaper did not fully own up to its role in supporting the movement and acknowledge the harm it caused.

State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III of Richmond said the newspaper's piece "goes part of the way to being an excellent editorial" but should have gone farther. In the 1950s, Marsh was a young civil rights lawyer who worked on one of the desegregation cases that became part of Brown v. Board of Education.

Marsh said the editorial should have mentioned the contributions of civil rights activists Oliver W. Hill and Samuel W. Tucker "and many other whites and blacks who stood up and fought against Massive Resistance."

He also said that "some people were crushed by Massive Resistance — they were denied an education — and there's no mention of them. And it fails to call upon the citizens today to undo some of the harm that was done by Massive Resistance. The battle is still ongoing."

Also ongoing, according to the editorial, is the damage the newspaper inflicted on its own reputation.

"Many remember," the editorial says. "We understand. Words have consequences."

Todd Culbertson, editor of the editorial page, said the newspaper has expressed regret in brief passages over the years but had never done so in a full editorial.

"We just thought it was time to say something," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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