American Civil Rights Movement: School Desegregation

Figure 1.--The courage of the Black children who faced racist mobs to integrate Southern schools made them heros who helped change their country. It was said at the time that you cannot legislate morality. But that is just what the Civil Rights Movement pushed the courts and the Congress to do and America is a very different country becaudse of it.

The fight against school segregation, because it involved children, may have been the most far-reaching aspect of the Civil Rights movement. Only the Voting Rights Act of 1965 compares with it in importance. The Supreme Court decission in Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka made school segregation illegal. But the Court had no powers of enforcement. President Eisenhower was not pleased with the decission. (He had opposed desegregation of the Army.) Thus there was no Federal action promoting compliance. Schools in states like Kansas quietly complied. States in the South did not. The NACCP brought legal action which slowly worked their way through the legal system. The first case to produce a desgreagation order emerged in Little Rock, Arkansas. The result is seen here in an excahnge between two Little Rock teenagers. The Little Rock case and threats of mob violence was swiftly resolved by the 101st Airborne. It would take 20 years to desegregate the rest of the South. The eventual deseggregation, combined with rhe Voting Rights Act, of the South, combined with rhe Voting Rights Act, would alter the social fabric not only of the South but of America as a whole.

Legal Challenge

Walter White at the NAACP brought Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) into the organization. Houston was the grandson of fugative slaves who escaped north. Although his name is not widely known outside the Civil Rights movement, he is one of the most important lawyers in American history. He devoted his career to undoing the Plessy decission which served as the nasis for Jim Crow in the South. Houston worked tireslessly toward that end. Houston was the legal mastermind behind the NAACP's challenge to segregation after World War II. He was appointed dean of the Howard University Law School in 1939 and in effect trained an entire generation of Civil rights lawyers. He told his students that a lawyer "is either a social engineer or he is a parasite on society". He was tough and extremely demanding on his students, but in the end turned out lawyers that proved more than a match for the White lawyers from prestigious Southern universities. It was Huston who recruited Thurgood Marshall. Marshall led a small team of brilliant lawyers, many trained at Howard University, which honed in on the school segration issue at a time when many thought the movement should focus elsewhere, such as lynching, marriage laws, and other issues. Later after Marshall's victory in the Brown decission, Marshall remarked, "We were only carrying (Houston's) bags, that's all."

The Supreme Court (May 1954)

The land-mark Supreme Court decission that turned the tide in the Civil Rights struggle was Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka (May 17, 1954). The Court declared segregated education contrary a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution and thus, unconstitutional. Several similar cases were united for consideration by the court. The best known is the Brown case which concerned Linda Brown, a little Black girl in Topeka, Kansas. There were also cases from the South, including one from South Carolina. The state of South Carolina realising that the Seoarate but Equal doctrine could be challenged by the obvioius inequality of Black and White schools, had embarked on a major building ptogram to construct Black schools. Thurgood Marshall decided to persue the principle that separate schools were inherently unequal. Chief Justice Earl Warren carefully guided the Court so that a unanimous verdictv was reached. President Eisenhower who had earlier opposed deseggregation of the military was to later say that his appointment of Warren was the biggest mistake he made as president.


The Supreme Court decission in Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka made school segregation illegal. But the Court had no powers of enforcement. The Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education II that Blacks need not be immediately admitted to pubic schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis, but that school boards should eliminate segregation “with all deliberate speed.” (1955) Southern states persued a variertyof legalmactions to delay compliance with the Brown decission. President Eisenhower was not pleased with the Brown decission. (He had opposed desegregation of the Army.) Thus there was no Federal action promoting compliance. Schools in states like Kansas quietly complied. States in the South did not. The NACCP brought legal action which slowly worked their way through the legal system. Challenging school segregation in the South was not just a legal matter. Entering White schools challenged the very foundation of the Segregation system. The children faced ostricism and violence. Their parents might be fired from their jobs. Little Rock's Central High became the first test for school integration.

Little Rock Central High School (September 1957)

The first court case to produce a desgreagation order emerged in Little Rock, Arkansas. A Federal Court ordered the admission of nine Black teenagers (the Little Rock Nine) to the city's all-White Central Hgh School. Arkansas Governor Faubus was at first prepared to accept the court order. The state was not a Deep South state and he was not known for racism. He changed his mind about Central High when die-hard seggregationists threatened to derail his reelection campaign. As a result, stationed the Arkansas National Guard at the school (September 2). The next morning, the children walked past an angry White mob to be turned away by the Guard (September 3). Then the Guard as well as Little Rock police made no effort to control the mob which threw rocks at the cars with the Black children, assaulted them, and threatened their lives. Now the Court had ordered Faubus to allow the children to enter. Faubus met with President Eisenhower and agreed to a face-saving gesture (September 14). He then had his lawyer show up in court, defybthe Court and then walk out (Friday, September 20). He then withdrew the Guard over the weekend. This meant that the Guard would no longer bar entry, it also meant that on Monday there would be no one to contro the White mob outside the school. No only that, but a close associate and friend Jimmy "the Flash" Karam who Faubus had appointedcto head the state Atletic Commission, organized thugs to add to the mob outside the school. The Black students who went to school that day had to be some if the bravest children in American. The mob outside the school was ready to attack the unprotected children when they arrived. Faubus must have known this would have happened. The mob spotted four Black reporters and in their haste to beat them, the Black children managed to enter Central High through a side door. A white student led them to the principal's office, where they were to register. When the mob outside learned that the Black students had made it inside the school, it exploded in violence. Fearful that the mob might enter the schoool and attack the children, the Mayor ordered policemen to sneak them out the back and to saftey and appealed to Eisenhower for assistance. (Governor Faubus had taken a trip out of the state to Georgia.) The almost month-long confrontation finally ended Eisenhower sent in U.S. troops to protect the children from the White mob. Eisenhower was extremely reluctant to intervene. Finally when the mob was out of control, he ordered in the 101st Airborne (the same unit that played such a valliant role in D-Day) and Fedralized the Arkansas National Guard. The next day, the Black children returned to Little Rock Central High again, this time protected by the paratroopers. When the mob tried to reach the Black children, they were met with bayonets. One rioter grabed a soldiers rifkle and was clubed with a rifel but. The mob quite willing to attack children thought twice about attacking paratroopers. The Little Rock case and threats of mob violence was swiftly resolved by the 101st Airborne. Throughout the school year, the Little Rock Nine faced both physical and verbal assaults from white students and the disapproval of most of the teachers. There were telephone and mail death threats against them and their families as well as other members of the black community. One of the Black students, Minnijean Brown, was expelled from Central after fighting back against white students who abused and taunted her. The other eight stuck it out. Ernest Green, the only senior in the group, in May 1958 became the first Black student to graduate from Central High. The courage of the Little Rock Nine helped take the first step in the long desegregation of Southern schools. It would take nearly 20 years to desegregate the rest of the South.

Massive Ressistance

Governor Orval Faubus' use of the National Guard and mob violence to unit block the admission of Little Rock Nine was the most publicised early attempt to block school desegragation and defy the courts (1957). Faubus' use of the National Guard was just one way that states and local goverments resisted the Supreme Couer ruling. Various legal and extra-legal methods were used throughout the South. There were ugly incidents harassing black children trying to attend all-white schools. It was the young black children who had to enter the schools. Often they were viciously harassed by the white children, especially in high schools. White parents and other adults staged protests outside schools. Black children often had to run a gauntlet to get into the schools. Local police commonly refused to intervene. Even when able to get into the school building, the black children were often refused admission by the school authorities. Elected leaders sworn to defending the constitution devised a range of strantegies to prevent desegregation which became known as Massive Resistance. The effort proved very successful. A decade after the Brown deccission, only about 2 percent of Black children in the Deep South attened integrated schools.


Virginia along with other Southern states after the Brown decission mobilized to resist the court ruling which they saw as a violation of states’ rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution. The Virginia General Assembly (state legislature) embarked on a program of "Massive Resistance." The term was coined by Harry F. Byrd, Sr., a leader Virginia’s Democratic Party and one of the most influential southern Senators. He promoted a series of state laws designed to "defend" Virginia’s public school system from integration. The principal provision decreed that integrated schools would not be entitled to or receive any funds from the State Treasury. As state funding was an important part of operating revenue, this made it very difficult for Virginia school districts to comply even if they wanted to do so. There was in Northern Virginia especially a desire to comply with the the Federal Court rulings rather than close schools. Federal District Courts in Virginia ordered schools in Arlington, Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Warren County to desegregate (1958). Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr. closed the schools in Warren County (September 8, 1958). Officials in Charlottesville and Norfolk postponed the opening of their schools hoping to resolve the impasse. The Governor Almond closed two schools in Charlottesville (September 19) and another six schools in Norfolk (September 27). Warren County and Charlottesville with relatively small school systems were able to open the schools even without state funding. Norfolk had a larger system, over 10,000 children and thus were unable to reopen the schools. One of the most prominent instances of Massive Resistance occurred in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Prince Edward was a largely rural count a few miles south of Washington, D.C. The country faced with court orders to deseggregate decided to close its entire public school system. Unlike some of the other school systems Governor Almond tried to close, there was considerable support in the county for the action. The county turned over school buildings to hasitly established private interests that excluded Black children from the schools. Most Blacks were essentially denied an education as they did not have the financial resources to operate their own private system. The public scgools were closed in Prince William County for several years until the Supreme Court ruled this action unconstitutional.

Legal Actions

While the NACCP and other Civil Rights groups persued legal action, the process was very slow. A decade after the Brown decission and the integration of Central Highschool, Southern schools were still segregated. The Supreme Court for 10 years issued no further decissions on school desegregation of any importance. The Massive Ressistance of Southern state governments was largely successful for 10 years. The legal and extra-legal methods of Southern officials frustrated Civil Rights leaders and perhaps more importantly the federal courts. Pressure was gradually building for more forceful legal action to address the problem.

Ole Miss (1962)

For the most part it was the public primary and secondary schools that were the focus of the desegregation struggle. The state universities were quietly integrated, usually under court orders. The outburst of violence at Ole Miss convinced most university and state officials accross the South that segregation was dead. The primary exception was the University of Mississippi--Ole Miss. Governor Ross Burnett stirred up passions all over the South with crude racist speeches. He believed that the support of the White Citzens Councils would make him a political phenomenon. He dreamed of a Hollywood like confrontation with the Federal Government. Barnett physically interposed himself backed by state troopers when Kanmes Meredith backed by a court order tried to register at Ole Miss. Only when a Federal judge threatened to jail him for contempt. He promissed police prorection for Meredith, but changed his mind. Meredith and 200 Federal marshals were beseiged by a White mobs with rocs, lead pipes, guns, and molotov cocktails. They tried all night to get at Meredith (October 2). The Marshals used tear gas against the mob, but did not return gunfire. Ober half of the marshals were injured, 28 by gun fire. A bystander and a reporter was killed. President Kennedy did not want to use Federal troops, but the mob left him no choice. The military collumn got lost on Mississippi highways and did not reach Oxford until 4:00 am in the morning. Meredith. Meredith was registered the next day. A force of 23,000 soldiers (three time's Oxford's population) made sure that there were no further disturbances. Meredith graduated the next year.

Changing Landscape

School segregation and the Jim Crow system established in the South was based upon a state and local legal system premesed on the Plessy decission (1896). This meant that the local courts could be used to enforce the system. After the Brown decession (1954) this was no longer possible as far as the schoolsere concerned. And soon further court rulings in areas such as municipal services desegregated other areas as well. (The most important example here was the Montgomery, Alabama bus system.) Experiencing defeat in a steady stream of cort rulings, Southern racists increasingly relied on raw terror. Blacks often organized Civil Rights efforts through their churches. Churches all over the South were attacked and burned. Individual Blacks challenging the system were murderd, often in their own homes. Civil Rights workers attempting to help Blacks register to vote were killed. Perhaps the most vicious action was the senceless killing of three little girls in their Birmingham Alabama Sunday school. Much of this was conducted by Klu Klux Klan thugs. But state and oficilasal officials were often involved. Many law enforcement officials were members of the Klan or had ties to it. The Alabama State Police under Governor Wallace's command vicioulsly beat Civil Rights marchers. The American public was horrfied at the calous nature of these attrocities. Many of these events were covered in detail by the national press and were shown on the evening news watched by most American families at the time. This was a level of publicity that the lynchings and other extral-legal terror had never received. They were covered in the Black media, but never in detail in the national press--and never so graphically. Also the movies and television began dealing with race issues. The media attention was a powerful force and one reason that reporters in the South were often single out for physical attacks. Most Americans were shocked that such attrocities could occur in the United States. The result was the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act in particular changed the politics of the Southern states. Many Southern oficials like Faubus and Wallace were not the most vicious racists among state politics. But they persued the racist policies that they are known for because had they not they would not have been reelected. Adding millions of Black voters to the electoral roles was to change the dynamics of Southern politics. In addition, President Johnson ordered the FBI to target the Klan. This had not been done earlier because of FBI Director's Hoover and his disrust of the Civil Rights movement. Now the publis digust towad Klan terror was such that even Hoover could not resist.


The Federal Government commitment to enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was critical. The Federal government threatening and sometimes actuall cut off Federal funding to school districts that failed to comply with the law. Gradually the legal groundwork began to change. The Courts began talking about not just desegregation, but integration. Massive Resistance in a way backfied. The Federal Courts in the mid-1960s began issuing orders that probably would never had occurred had it not been for Massive Ressiance and extra-legal terror. The Supreme Court for 10 years after the Brown I and II decisions took an inconspicuous position. Judge John Minor Wisdom on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued three decisions that transformed school desegregation law (1965-66). The three cases were: Singleton v. Jackson I and II and U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education. Wisdom ruled school boards had a positive duty to integrate and not merely to stop segregating. U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education was a key decision (1966). The Fifth Circuit Court ordered school districts not only to end segregation but to go far beyond that and "undo the harm" that segregation had caused. It was a remedial decree which explained in detail how school districts were to go about equalizing educational opportunity. The Court's remedy was racially balancing their schools under Federal guidelines. This decision was the beginning of a level of Federal judicial involvement in local education, traditionally a respoinsibility of local and state government, that was not forseen by the Brown decisions. It was made possible only by Massive Ressiastance and KLan terror. The Supreme Court endorsed the Wisdom rulings in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968). The Court required desegregation plans that could be immediately implemented. The Cout ruled that local school boards had the responsibility of affirmatively persuing school integration and that they had to immediately proceed with school integration (1968). The Court also ruled that local school boards would be judged on their performance and not on paper promises. Here the performance of school boards would be assessed by statidstical evidence.


The Supreme Court also addressed the issue of faculty assignments. The Court established in U.S. v. Montgomery County (Alabama) Board of Education a racial ratio of teachers in the school district (1969). This was a landmark ruling because the Couret for first time sanctioned affirmative numerical goals in a school desegregation remedy.

Integrated Schools

It was not until the late 1960s and early 70s that Deep South schools began to integrate in a meaningful way and large numbers of Black and White children began attending the same schools. By 1968, over 30 percent of Black school children were attending integrated schools. Most Southern school districts after passage of the Civil Rights Acts began to voluntarily comply and deseggregate their schools. To defy the Courts meant that Federal judges would impose radical integration plans and most destricts preferred to comply to avoid Court interventioin. It also meant a loss of Federal funds. This allowed the Federal Courts to focus in those school districts which were determined to defy the law. The Supreme Court ordered in Alexander v. Holmes (Mississippi) Board of Education school systems to integrate no later than February 1970 (1969). This deadline had to be extended, but the imposition of deadlines were important in themselves. schools all over the South were actually integrating. The Court in Carter v. West Feliciana Parish School Board repremended the school board for delaying student desegregation (1969).

The Election of 1968

The Eisenhower Administration had tried to stay out of the desegragation process, except when mob violence chanlenged the legal system as in Central Highschool. The Kennedy-Johnson Administrations reversed this policy and the Justice Department actively persued legal actions to force compliance. In addition there were many judicial appointments of individuals who looked favorably on school integration. As a result, school dustricts all over the South by the late 1960s had run out of legal options. School desegregation was an issue in the campaign, but the overiding issue on which the election turned was the Vietnam War. President Nixon's election did not radically change the basic process. Nixon took issue wth bussing, but here the decissions were being made by the Courts, not by Presidential policies.

Living Patterns

Desegration had a profound impact on Southern demographics. Northern cities had become to a large degree segregated. Blacks were coincentrated in the inner-citiy areas as Whites fled to the suburbs. Thus there was a degree of school segregation based on neigborhoods rather than the legal system established in the South. Southern cities were much less racially separated. The flight to the suburbs began to develop as school segregation progressed. In addition since World War thaere had been a huge shift in the Black population. Before the War most Blacks lived in the South in rural areas. By the 1960s there was a substantial Black popuklation in the North and about 75 percent of Blacks lived in urban areas.


Federal Courts began demanding a level of school integration in the South that did not exist in the North. the Supreme Court decided in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (Virginia) Board of Education that the Board was out of compliance with the Green decussion (1970). This was important in that it was tecfirst Court decission during the Nixon administration with the two new Nixon appointees. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote the decission. The Court adopted the Finger Plan. This was a plan developed by Dr. John Finger, an expert witness in the case selected by the Court. The Finger Plan sought to bring all schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system to ratios of Black students of 9-38 percent. This was not absolute, but a general goal. Charlotte-Mecklenburg to achieve this had to bus an additional thirteen thousand students buying over one hundred new school buses. The initial cost to implement this plan were over $1 million dollars an additional operating expenses of over $0.5 million dollars. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg was the basis for future court decisions using busing to integrate schools. The decission was a means of implementing the Green decision. The Court ruling meant that if a school district was found to be in constitutional violation, the district had to develop an appropriate remedy. The Swann case was closed finally closed and constitutional operation of the schools returned to the Board of Education (1974).

The Stennis Amendment

The Swan and school bussing began a contentious political issue. It was difficult issue fof all concerned. Many parents who never compalined when the school buses took their children by a close Black school to a wide school, now compalined about bussing, always adding the adjetive "forced". Then again even Black parents complained when their children could not attend their neighborhood school. Southern senators saw a political opening in the debate over bussing. Senator John Stennis of Mississippi new federal desegregation guidelines be enforced uniformly across the country (1970). The Southern senators correctly assessed the opposition to bussing that would be encountered in the North. The Senate adopted the Stennis amendment.

The North and West

The Federal Courts during the 1960s focused on Southern schools and no the many inner-city Northern schools that were defacto highly segregated because of living patterns. The first Supreme Court ruling on defacto school segregation was Keyes v. School District No. 1 (Denver, Colorado) (1972). The Court held that the school district guilty of subtle racism. The Court ordered the busing of an additional 6,000 students. The Distruct had many primary school chkldren attending a segregated school for half the day and then bussed to an integrated school for thec restv of the day. The most contentious of the Northern rulings was in Boston. Federal District Court Judge Garrity determined that the Boston, Massachusetts School Committee was systematically segregation students as well as teachers (1974). The Court ordered bussing resulting in a range of violent action in South Boston, including busses with Black children being bussed into South Boston schools. This was especially shocking to the country because by this time a high level of compliance had been achieved in the South without the violence that had marked the 1960s.

Defacto Segregation

A Federal District Court found that the city of Detroit, Michigan was resisting integration. The Supreme Court found in Milliken v. Bradley that suburban students could not be used to desegregate inner city schools (1974). This decission effectively ended efforts to address the desegration of schools based on neighborhood living patterns. The Court essetially favored educational democracy over school integration, something the Court had not done when confronting similar patterns in Southern schools. The Court thus upheld the right of the middle and upper classes with the financial resources to flee the inner city for the suburbs so their children can be educated in largely White suburban schools. This decission was of immense importance because of the way American schools are organized and financed. There is no national education system. There are 50 differnt school systems, one for each state. The state systems are divided into destricts which are largely finaced locally by property taxes. In most areas the suburbs around large cities areseparate school districts. This means that inner-city school districts withb a weak prooert base are poorly finaced while suburban schools with a stroing tax base tend to be well-financed.


The eventual deseggregation, combined with rhe Voting Rights Act, of the South, combined with rhe Voting Rights Act, would alter the social fabric not only of the South but of America as a whole.


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Created: October 25, 2003
Last updated: 8:43 PM 5/2/2006