Desegregation of Public Schools

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Desegregation of Public Schools

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that it was unlawful to segregate (separate) public schools by race. (See Segregation .) It became clear almost immediately that the vast majority of southern whites, as well as a large proportion of northern whites, were prepared to fight desegregation of public schools. Although some school districts outside the South complied with Brown quickly, southern politicians and local leaders waged an intense campaign against school desegregation. One southern state after another passed laws aimed at defeating desegregation.

Evading the law

By the early 1960s, the school districts in the South had found methods to keep black and white students in separate schools while seeming to comply with Brown. Some districts used Pupil Placement Boards, which claimed to place students in schools that were in the “best interest” of the child—almost always assigning black children to black schools and white children to white schools. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged these placement boards in the mid-1960s, local school districts changed tactics, adopting “freedom of choice” plans. In theory, under these plans black and white students were free to choose which school they would attend; but in practice, there was no real freedom. White children would not voluntarily attend black schools, whose curriculum for the most part was inferior to white schools. Nor would very many black children voluntarily choose white schools where they knew they would not be welcomed. Lack of transportation greatly hampered their choice, as well. Since most neighborhoods had long been segregated, black children tended to live near all-black schools and would have to travel to get to white schools. By 1968, more than 90 percent of black children in the South attended schools that were predominantly black, despite several years of “free” choice.

The Court orders busing

The Supreme Court responded to this defiance with strong new rulings demanding effective desegregation programs in public schools. In its first major school desegregation ruling after Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Green v. New Kent County (1968) that ineffective freedom of choice plans could not be tolerated so long as the schools remained segregated. A year later, the Court declared that school districts should move to desegregate at once. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971), the Court unanimously approved the use of busing—transporting public school students by bus to schools outside their neighborhoods—as a means of achieving desegregation.

The Swann ruling set off a furor across the country. In a phenomenon known as “white flight,” angry whites fled the cities in droves, many opting for private schools or all-white suburban school districts rather than allowing their children to be bused into schools with significant African American or Hispanic populations.

Desegregation in the North and West

In 1971, research revealed that segregation in the North was more widespread than in the South. Federal judges began to issue orders forcing northern public schools to integrate, usually by busing. In 1974, a federal district judge in Boston, Massachusetts , ordered the highly segregated Boston schools to desegregrate, unleashing a violent conflict that gripped the city for years. White parents greeted the African Americans bused to their children's schools with racist chants and sometimes violence. Confrontations between black and white students led to police presence on school grounds during much of the controversy.

In one of its last major rulings in support of school desegregation, the Court held in Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1 (1973) that schools in the North and West, like those in the South, were responsible for policies that resulted in racial segregation in the public school system. This case recognized Hispanics’ rights to desegregation as well as African Americans.

Backing off on busing

To prevent “white flight,” some federal judges began to merge city and county schools into one consolidated system. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that the judges were exceeding their authority. Though efforts at desegregation continued, this decision signaled the Court's retreat from school desegregation.

The integration of the nation's schools remained an open-ended issue. Desegregation eventually attained widespread public support in a few cities, such as Boston; Detroit, Michigan ; Chicago, Illinois ; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . Educational programs designed to ease racial tensions and encourage diversity in schools became commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s. But in some areas, intense, unyielding resistance continued, notably in the form of resegregation. School districts like Denver, Colorado ; Cleveland, Ohio ; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma , dismantled their court-ordered school desegregation plans. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Oklahoma City v. Dowell that the city could stop its court-enforced busing program, saying that the city had already achieved segregation and that residents had a right to send their children to neighborhood schools.

According to a Harvard study, under school desegregation laws, the number of southern black students who attended majority-white schools soared from 2.3 percent in 1964 to 43.5 percent in 1988. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, the number of black students in majority-white schools fell to 30 percent and many schools had resegregated, or returned to racial segregation. Some cities, such as Seattle, Washington , and Louisville, Kentucky , created programs designed to maintain racial diversity in their school systems by using a student's race or ethnicity as one of the factors determining to which school he or she was assigned. In June 2007, the Supreme Court ruled against these programs, saying that race cannot be a factor in the assignment of students to public schools.