Enforcing Desegregation: A Case Study of Federal District Court Power and Social Change in Macon County Alabama

Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
Enforcing Desegregation: A Case Study of Federal
District Court Power and Social Change in Macon
County Alabama
Brian K. Landsberg
This case study of Lee v. Macon County Board of Education demonstrates that
a federal district court in Alabama, enforcing Brown v. Board of Education,
brought about significant social change despite constraints on the courts. The
court’s application of Brown played a decisive role in ending the racial caste
system in this Alabama Black Belt county. The court, by adding the U.S.
Department of Justice as a party,overcame constraints that had precluded the
executive branch from pursuing school desegregation. Change came through
the courts before Congress legislated against school segregation. Seekers of
social change must evaluate the constraints on the courts relative to the
constraints on the other branches and levels of government.
This article closely examines Lee v. Macon County Board of Edu-
cation, a case that grew from a challenge to school segregation in a
small Alabama county and became the vehicle for statewide school
desegregation. In its examination, the article, following the sugges-
tion of Schultz and Gottlieb (1996: 90), deviates from the method-
ology used by Rosenberg and examines the role of the judiciary
in school desegregation at the micro level. It explores the question
whether and how lower court enforcement of a Supreme Court
decision such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954)
(Brown) may bring about social change even though “in a govern-
ment in which [powers] are separated from each other, the
This article grows out of a larger project. Thanks to Anne Bloom and participants in a
Pacific McGeorge Works in Progress program. Thanks to Steve Pollak and Dorothy
Landsberg for comments on early drafts, and to Stephen L. Wasby for his ongoing advice
both on this article and on the larger project. The editors and reviewers for Law and Society
Review contributed valuable suggestions. I benefited also from feedback on a related article
at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in 2013, especially from Ira Strauber
and Thomas Keck. Thanks to archivists at Tuskegee Institute, Library of Congress,
National Archives and Records Administration College Park, Kennedy Presidential Library,
and Alabama State Archives. A number of research assistants have helped on this project:
Jocelyn Blinn, Keith Banks, Michael Heumann, Jacqueline Hassell, and Abby Maurer.
Robert Mayville provided helpful research assistance on this article. Finally, Joseph M.
Bagley generously shared with me his extensive research on Lee v. Macon County Board of
Please direct all correspondence to Brian Keith Landsberg, McGeorge School of Law,
University of Pacific, 3200 Fifth Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95817; e-mail: blandsberg@
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 4 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
judiciary . . . will always be the least dangerous. . . .” (Hamilton
1788). To what extent are the courts constrained by “the inability to
develop appropriate policies and . . . lack of powers of implemen-
tation?” (Rosenberg 2008: 10).
Rosenberg lists three constraints on the ability of courts to
produce meaningful social change: the limited nature of constitu-
tional rights, the lack of judicial independence, and the judiciary’s
lack of powers of implementation. The second constraint, he says,
can be overcome only with support from Congress and the execu-
tive, and the third only with support from some citizens or low
levels of opposition from all citizens (Rosenberg, 35–36) Yet, Lee v.
Macon County Board of Education produced meaningful social
change despite the lack of support from Congress and a high level
of opposition from whites in Macon County.
To those who seek instruments of social change, the question
“Can courts bring about social change?” is the wrong question. As
McCann (1994: 136) demonstrates, social change depends upon
the confluence of several forces. Opponents of the racial caste
system engaged in a multipronged attack in which the courts
were an essential element. Litigation, pressure on the executive
branch, lobbying Congress for legislation, marches, boycotts, sit-ins,
Freedom Rides, and voter registration campaigns were the tools.
The courts enabled many of these methods, even encouraging
some of them, and they began enforcing Brown before Congress’
landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowered federal agencies to
enforce school desegregation. John Doar succinctly summarized:
“Look, if you’re going to bring about a big cultural change in this
country, you need the three branches of the federal government to
work together . . .” (Doar 2013: 304; see also Cummings (2013:
185), McCann (1992: 728), and Epstein and Walker (2007: 123)).
Examining litigation for social change through the lens of Lee v.
Macon County Board of Education in its early phases reveals the
complex interaction of the district court, the proponents of social
change, the state and local governments, the federal executive
branch, and the Congress. This article covers the first two years of
the case, 1963–1965. By 1966, the enforcement of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 reinforced the judicial enforcement of Brown. But
implementation of Brown in Alabama began when Congress had
done nothing either to implement or interfere with the Brown
This article examines the difficult question of causation: Did
Brown bring about social change, or would the schools of the South,
as Klarman seems to suggest, have desegregated faster if the Court
had not decided Brown? It also examines whether the original
objectives of the proponents of social change were met by the
litigation. Any number of cases could serve as the vehicle for an
868 Enforcing Desegregation

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