Freed finally of slavery's shackles, blacks in America began the long quest for racial equality. Desegregation, a generic term used to describe elimination of the SEGREGATION and RACIAL DISCRIMINATION that nonwhites confronted at life's every turn, has been the equivalent of their Holy Grail.
While blacks have attacked barriers based on color across a spectrum that includes VOTING, employment, housing, the administration of justice, access to public facilities, and even sex and marriage, the elimination of discrimination in the public schools has been and remains the most important goal for black Americans in their continuing struggle against racism in this country.
At an early time in the nation's history, blacks hoped an already hostile society might at least share their fear, as a black minister phrased it, "for our rising offspring to see them in ignorance in a land of gospel light." That petition presented in 1787 to the Massachusetts legislature sought a separate school for Boston's black children whose parents had withdrawn them from the harassment and ridicule heaped on them by white teachers and students in some of the new nation's first public schools.
The legislature denied the petition, which reflected fears shared by succeeding generations of black parents who all during the nineteenth century filed dozens of law suits with state courts seeking relief from the racial discrimination they found in the public schools. Depending on the times and the character of the discrimination they faced, black parents have sought equal educational opportunity for their children through the advocacy of either racially separate or integrated schools.
With few exceptions, the courts were no more sympathetic to these petitions than were the school boards whose policies sometimes excluded black children from the public schools entirely and always subjected them to conditions that left little doubt as to which students were deemed members of the superior race. In ROBERTS V. CITY OF BOSTON (1850) a state court rejected a school desegregation petition almost two decades before the adoption of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT; three decades after its ratification, the United States Supreme Court concluded in PLESSY V. FERGUSON (1896) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit state-sanctioned segregation, citing the Roberts decision as support for the reasonableness of what it called SEPARATE BUT EQUAL facilities. Plessy provided the Constitution's blessing for laws throughout the South that required racial segregation not only in public schools, but in every possible public facility, including cemeteries and houses of prostitution.
The law and much of society enforced the "separate" phase of the Plessy standard to the letter, but the promise of "equal" facilities received only the grudging attention of a public whose racial attitudes ranged from apathy to outright hostility. Deep-South states spent far less for the schooling of black children than for whites. Despite a major effort to equalize segregated schools as a means of forestalling the steadily increasing number of CIVIL RIGHTS challenges in the 1950s, the South as a whole expended an average of $165 for every white child, and only $115 for each black in 1954, the year in which segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional.
More than a half century after its Plessy decision, the Supreme Court in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954) reviewed the "separate but equal" DOCTRINE in the light of education's importance for children in a modern society, and concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment's EQUAL PROTECTION clause was violated by segregated schools "even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal.?"
Chief Justice EARL WARREN'S ringing rhetoric in the Brown opinion condemned racially segregated schooling as "inherently unequal." He found that the separation by the state of children in grade and high schools solely on
the basis of race "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
This decision was the result of long years of planning and litigation by the NAACP, and the committed work of lawyers including THURGOOD MARSHALL and Robert L. Carter, social scientists like Kenneth Clark, and hundreds of courageous black parents and their children. The decision, most blacks were convinced, required the elimination of segregated school facilities. Black parents knew that...