School Desegregation

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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The attempt to end the practice of separating children of different races into distinct public schools.

Beginning with the landmark Supreme Court case of BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the United States' legal system has sought to address the problem of racial SEGREGATION, or separation, in public schools. In Brown, a unanimous Supreme Court found that segregating children of different races in distinct schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, which guarantees that "[n]o state shall ? deny to any person ? the EQUAL PROTECTION of the laws" (§ 1). In writing the Court's opinion, Chief Justice EARL WARREN stressed the crucial role education plays in socializing children, and he maintained that racial segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority" in children that will limit their opportunities in life. A related decision, Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955), (Brown II), empowered lower courts to supervise desegregation in local school districts and held that desegregation must proceed "with all deliberate speed."

A number of Supreme Court decisions in the decades since Brown have further defined the constitutional claims regarding desegregation first set forth in Brown. In many cases, these decisions have resulted in court-imposed desegregation plans, sometimes involving controversial provisions for busing students to schools outside their immediate neighborhood. Despite such judicial actions, desegregation in the United States achieved mixed success. Although many more children attend school with children of other races now than in 1954, in numerous cities, racial segregation in education remains as high as ever. Faced with the challenges of shifting populations, segregated housing patterns, impatient courts, and the stubborn persistence of racism, comprehensive school desegregation?long a hoped-for remedy to past discrimination against African Americans?remains an elusive goal.

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1954?1970: School Desegregation After Brown

Brown and Brown II inspired a great deal of hope that the races would soon be joined in public schools and that the United States would take a giant step toward healing the racial animosities of its past. THURGOOD MARSHALL, an African American who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund in its challenge to school segregation in Brown and later became a justice of the Supreme Court, predicted that after Brown, schools would be completely desegregated within six months.

Marshall's statement proved to be wildly optimistic. By 1964, ten years after Brown, a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) study indicated that only 2.4 percent of African Americans in the South were attending largely white schools. Such statistics indicated that Brown had led to only token INTEGRATION. By the mid-1960s, many observers felt that the Supreme Court, and the United States as a whole, had lost an opportunity to more quickly create a desegregated society. De facto segregation (segregation in fact or actuality)?as opposed to de jure segregation (segregation by law)?remained a stubborn reality, and racism remained its leading cause. Whites who did not want their children attending school with children of another race found many ways to avoid desegregation, from gerrymandering school boundaries (adjusting school boundaries to their advantage) to manipulating school transportation and construction policies. And in a phenomenon dubbed white flight, many transferred their children to private schools or simply moved to suburbs where few, if any, nonwhites lived.

Congress joined the Supreme Court in its efforts to assist desegregation, by passing the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (28 U.S.C.A. § 1447, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1971, 1975a to 1975d, 2000a to 2000h-6). Among its many features, the act authorized HEW to create specific guidelines with which to measure the progress of school desegregation. In 1966, for example, these guidelines called for specific levels of integration: 16 to 18 percent of African?American children in all school districts must be attending predominantly white schools. The act also allowed HEW to cut off federal funding to school districts that did not meet integration guidelines. However, this punishment proved difficult to use as a means of enforcement.

In the mid-1960s, a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, JOHN MINOR WISDOM, issued a number of influential opinions that strengthened the cause of racial integration of schools. Wisdom's rulings established that it was not enough simply to end segregation; instead, school districts must actively implement desegregation. In one of these cases, United States v. Jefferson Board of Education, 372 F.2d 836 (5th Cir. 1966), he wrote, "[T]he only adequate redress for a previously overt system-wide policy of segregation directed against Negroes as a collective entity is a system-wide policy of integration." Wisdom's ruling also detailed measures that the school district must take toward the goal of integration, including deciding how children were to be informed of the schools available to them for attendance, where new schools must be constructed, where transportation routes must run, and how faculty and staff were to be hired and assigned.

In 1968, the Supreme Court again addressed the issue of school desegregation, in Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, 88 S. Ct. 1689, 20 L. Ed. 2d 716, which dealt with the schools of New Kent County, a rural area in eastern Virginia. In its opinion, the Court acknowledged that the integration guidelines set forth in Brown II had not produced adequate results. School districts such as those of New Kent County?where in 1967, 85 percent of black children still attended an all-black school?had avoided meaningful integration. It was not enough, the Court argued, to simply end segregation and allow a "freedom-of-choice" plan?by which African?American children supposedly had the freedom to attend predominantly white schools?to be the only means of combining the races in an educational setting. In comments during Court hearings on the case, Chief Justice Warren noted that though the "fence" of outright segregation had been taken down, socially constructed "booby traps" still prevented most children from attending integrated schools.

Green also introduced two concepts?dual school systems and unitary school systems?that remain a part of the school desegregation debate. A dual school system is a segregated school system. In other words, it consists of separate segments?one black, the other white? existing side by side but with widely different educational conditions and outcomes. The Court in Green identified six indicators of a dual

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system: racial separation of students, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities. A unitary school system, on the other hand, is racially integrated at every level. In a later ruling, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 19, 90 S. Ct. 29, 24 L. Ed. 2d 19 (1969), the Court described a unitary system as one "within which no person is to be effectively excluded from any school because of race or color."

Even more important, in its opinion in Green, the Court held that New Kent County would be expected to immediately begin remedying the lasting effects of segregation. "The burden on a school board today," the Court said, "is to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now" (Green). Thus, the Court abandoned its previous position that school desegregation must proceed "with all deliberate speed" in favor of a call for immediate and prompt action.

The Court also held that the Fourteenth Amendment required action to remedy past racial discrimination?or what has come to be called AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. It found an "affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert to a unitary system in which RACIAL DISCRIMINATION would be eliminated root and branch" (Green). Moreover, school boards would have to provide meaningful statistical evidence that their school district was moving toward the goal of integration.

In a footnote to its opinion, the Court advanced suggestions for achieving school desegregation, including combining all children in a particular age range, white and black, into the same building.

Green and subsequent judicial decisions through 1970 caused a remarkable change in school desegregation. By 1971, HEW statistics indicated that the South had become the most racially integrated region in the United States. HEW estimated that 44 percent of African? American students attended majority white schools in the South, as opposed to 28 percent in the North and West. In many communities, however, these changes...

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