Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County 377 U.S. 218 (1964)

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Griffin, one of the school segregation cases decided with brown v. board of education (1954–1955), arose in Prince Edward County, Virginia. In 1956 Virginia adopted legislation aimed at closing mixed-race schools and providing state aid to private schools. The state courts held much of this "massive resistance" legislation unconstitutional in 1959. The legislature responded by making compulsory school attendance a matter of local option and by authorizing tuition grants and property tax credits to help support private schools.

Meanwhile, the federal district court in Griffin had ordered the commencement of desegregation in the 1959–1960 year. The county school commissioners refused to levy school taxes for the year, and in the fall of 1959 the public schools of Prince Edward County remained closed. Private schools for white children were established, taking advantage of the state's financial aid. The Griffin plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of this new response to Brown, and the case returned to the Supreme Court.

In an opinion by Justice hugo l. black, the Court held that closing the schools denied equal protection to black pupils in the county. The Court acknowledged that no general equal protection principle required a state to treat all counties alike. However, the only reason for different treatment of this county's children was to ensure the continuation of racial segregation—an unconstitutional objective. (See legislation.)

Only the question of remedy divided the Court. All the Justices agreed that the tuition grants and tax credits should be enjoined while the public schools remained closed. (A federal court of appeals later enjoined them, irrespective of the closure of the public schools.) But the majority went further, authorizing the district court to order county officials to open the schools and, if necessary, to levy taxes to support them: "the time for mere "deliberate speed' has run out." Justices tom c. clark and john marshall harlan briefly noted their disagreement with the holding that the federal courts had power to order the opening of the county's schools.

Griffin's doctrinal importance is twofold. It is an early suggestion of the state's affirmative obligation to equalize educational opportunity, and it is an early example of federal court intervention deep in the processes of local government. (See institutional litigation.) In practical terms, the episode also provides a sad example of "white flight." (See desegregation.) The county's public schools opened, but they were populated almost entirely by black pupils. A whites-only private school flourished, even without the aid of the state's money. Today, while it is true that such "segregation academies" cannot lawfully exclude applicants on account of race (see runyon v. mccrary), it is also true that their tuition fees are beyond the reach of most black families. When middle-class white children withdraw from desegregated schools—in Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Prince Edward County—the result is segregation by economic status and the likely continuation of continued racial segregation.

Kenneth L. Karst

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Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County 377 U.S. 218 (1964)

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