Segregation can be both voluntary and involuntary, forced and by mutual agreement. When segregation results in exclusion from public goods, rewards, and privileges, or when segregation results in stigmas, then a violation of the basic conditions of democracy is evident. When such segregation occurs along racial lines, it becomes racial segregation. When racial segregation is operant across major social institutions, it is considered institutional racism.
Efforts in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have been aimed at reversing racial segregation. These efforts, labeled desegregation, are political processes that make use of civil protest, litigation, and economic sanctions to eliminate racial segregation. Racial segregation, both de jure and de facto, has historically served to restrict access to education and training, economic and political institutions, occupational and social mobility, religious and social institutions, and neighborhoods and transportation facilities. Within the United States, most desegregation activity has focused on educational institutions, public accommodation, and the military.
While many cite the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as the beginning of desegregation, in actuality desegregation reflects a process that continues into the twenty-first century. The Brown decision, by striking down legal segregation on the basis of race in public schools, reversed the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Throughout history, one of the primary tactics of exploitative systems was control of access to education. Some of the first laws aimed at controlling Africans during the slavery era prohibited or restricted educational access. These laws, which carried harsh sanctions, denied educational access not only to slaves but to freed Africans as well. The same method was used to keep European women, Native Americans, Chinese, and others in subordinate positions. It is no wonder that one of the major features of the various civil rights movements has been directed at dismantling segregated or restricted access to educational institutions.
Although many thought the Civil War (1861–1865) and the associated constitutional amendments would resolve the issue of segregation in the United States, the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling actually mandated it. Within months after this historic ruling, seventeen southern states began to implement sets of laws—known as Jim Crow or de jure segregation —that formalized and legitimized racial segregation in most institutional spaces. Among these were laws that established “separate but equal” educational facilities. While often lacking specific legislation, the North accomplished the same effect through what has been termed de facto segregation.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, with its aim to end school segregation, struck at the heart of the system of racial entitlements in the United States. Nothing less then a revolution was envisioned. As pointed out by Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton (1996), integration did not represent a magical process in which simply situating whites and blacks in the same room would end centuries of discrimination. Rather, it recognized that white dominance had been engineered through exclusive control of select schools. Ending this dominance and making such schools available to all would serve to remove the racial stigma and victimization of blacks, provide black Americans access to other major institutions, and level the playing field, thereby assuring equality and freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools did indeed perpetuate racial stigmas among blacks, and that such schools were therefore inherently unequal. Yet, in striking down Plessy, the Supreme Court decided ambiguously that integration should take place “with all deliberate speed.”
“All deliberate speed” has been described as simultaneously placing the country’s feet on both the accelerator and the brake. Throughout the South, a multitude of strategies were instituted to delay, divert, or otherwise circumvent the Brown ruling. In 1956 advocates of segregation were successful in convincing Virginia’s governor and state assembly to pass laws blocking the funding of school integration. One of the most striking anti-integration efforts occurred in 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus (1910–1994) ordered the state’s national guard to block the doors to Little Rock’s Central High School, preventing nine black teenagers from entering. Only after President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) sent federal troops to the site were the nine students allowed to attend the school. Other states were equally creative. Prince Edward County in Virginia decided to close all of its public schools rather than integrate them. Lawsuits filed on behalf of blacks throughout the South filled the courts. More definitive court rulings ensued, but the road to integration was fraught with many obstacles.
A decade after the Brown decision, southern schools remained 98 percent segregated. Continual agitation on the part of blacks led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thereafter, courts prescribed more immediate and encompassing integration efforts. Starting in 1966 with United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Fifth Circuit Court not only ordered integration but also remedies to redress historical segregation. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to provide immediate integration. Similar court rulings, aggressive enforcement by the federal government, and the vigilance of southern blacks eventually led to the racial transformation of schools in the South. By 1970, slightly more than 45 percent of black youths in the South attended integrated schools. Frustrated, however, with the slow pace of integration, in 1971 the Supreme Court ordered a massive urban desegregation plan in Swann v. Charlotte-Meklenburg Board of Education. In this plan, with the aid of busing, the first district-wide school desegregation order was provided. Busing, as it came to be known, became a very controversial tool to achieve integration.
Busing and forced integration generated considerable fear among many white Americans. This fear resulted in “white flight” (i.e., when whites leave typically urban areas to avoid living in proximity to blacks), and it fueled a conservative backlash against desegregation efforts. During the 1970s, some Republican politicians, such as Richard Nixon (1913–1994), would ride the waves of this backlash all the way to the White House and control of both houses of Congress. These conservative forces also oversaw the first set of reversals. By 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court blocked a Detroit area busing plan. In this and subsequent cases, the courts ruled that local decisions regarding school integration should be respected.
As segregation was challenged in the North, the Supreme Court would institute even more radical moves, inaugurating the era of busing, teacher integration, gradual integration, and magnet schools. Although partial success may be claimed, more than fifty years after Brown, little progress has been made toward the racial integration of America’s school system. White flight, private schools, and the more recent voucher movement have all served to preserve racial segregation in schools.
Access to public space and private dwellings has long been disputed terrain in the United States. Property and the access to property has been the determinant not only of status, but also of political and social rights and privilege. In the United States, the rights to vote, hold political office, and seek legal recourse were all initially reserved for those who owned property. Thus, the first sets of laws aimed at controlling blacks included laws that not only declared them property but also restricted their ownership rights.
The battle to gain access to the totality of American liberties would be incomplete without access to public accommodations. Black Americans pinned their hopes of total freedom on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which together granted them full citizenship. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court declared that black Americans would retain the stigma of race and second-class citizenship, and be denied even basic access to public accommodations. This ruling, more than any other single action, led to the dissolution of good will, the dismantling of postwar Reconstruction, and the wholesale creation of the extensive apparatus of Jim Crow segregation under the misbegotten rubric of “separate but equal.” It would take almost a half-century, several hundred lynchings, and countless court cases before Plessy would be overturned.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act put an end to segregated lunch counters, hotels, trains, buses, and theaters. This legislation owes its enactment to the courage and determination of many who became heroes of the modern civil rights movement. One such hero was Rosa Parks (1913–2005), who on December 1, 1955, challenged the whites-only Jim Crow laws of Montgomery, Alabama, by refusing to give her seat on a bus to a white patron. Her courageous action launched the modern civil rights movement.
On February 27, 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, defied the laws of segregation by sitting down at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter and requesting service. Although they were not served, their defiance sparked similar acts in over one hundred American cities throughout the 1960s. In 1961 civil rights activists known as “Freedom Riders” began to protest the whites-only policies in public bathrooms and buses. In May 1961 thirteen Freedom Riders, white and black, left Washington, D.C., in two buses heading south. Riders on the first bus were attacked by pipe-toting men in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. The second bus was fire-bombed just outside of Anniston. Undaunted, sit-ins, freedom rides, and other forms of protests compelled a reluctant Congress and president to pass and sign into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Black Americans have consistently put their lives on the line in defense of their country. However, their service was for many years dismissed, isolated, and segregated. Notwithstanding the valor of such revolutionary-era heroes as Crispus Attucks, a patriot killed by British soldiers in Boston in 1770, General George Washington in 1775 officially barred blacks from serving in the Continental Army. This order, reflecting the legal view of many in the colonies, was followed by the 1792 Congressional Act, which barred blacks from serving in state militias. Congress also prohibited the Marine Corps from its inception in 1798 from recruiting blacks.
Ironically, the First Rhode Island Regiment, formed in 1778, was composed almost entirely of former black slaves. Furthermore, unlike the Continental Army, the Continental Navy recruited heavily among blacks, both free and slave. These sailors, sought for both their skills and to fill major gaps, served with distinction throughout the revolutionary period. Late in the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), in response to British recruitment among slaves, Washington reluctantly eased the ban on the recruitment of slaves. These blacks, however, served in segregated regiments under white officers.
Although blacks have served with distinction and honor throughout American history, their service was typically ignored and downplayed. The U.S. military remained segregated until shortly after World War II (1939–1945), when President Harry S Truman’s (1884–1972) Executive Order 9981 (1948) called for the end of racial segregation in the armed forces. It was not until war broke out in Korea in 1950, however, and the United States faced heavy casualties that the military decided to act upon this order and create the first racially integrated units.
By 2006, with African Americans filling over seven thousand officer posts and composing 20 percent of all service personnel, the military represents the most desegregated institution in the United States. Finally, while blacks do serve in significant numbers at all levels in the military, their service tends to be restricted to noncombat and communications roles. For example, black service members make up less then 3 percent of the pilots, tank commanders, and special forces personnel. Thus, although the U.S. military is formally integrated, nominal segregation by training, specialty, and duty remains the rule.
Segregation has developed wherever there have been racially based societies. What makes these societal situations different has to do with the relative permeability (perceived or real) of segregation. Thus, countries such as France and England exhibit relatively more racial flexibility than such countries as Australia or South Africa. In both France and England, with the decline in their colonial empires, there were deliberate attempts to integrate a greater number of nonwhite citizens into the cultural, political, and social life. In both France and England, noncolonial persons of color experienced a greater degree of social mobility than former colonial subjects. And while much progress has been made, racial unrest in both countries in the first decade of the twenty-first century indicates that more progress needs to be made.
In contrast, extremely rigid castelike structures of racial segregation have only fallen in the last few decades in such countries as Australia and South Africa. In both of these countries, indigenous persons of color experienced decades of exclusion from power, economic advancement, and education, and they were forced to live in enclaves, reservations, or specially designated communities. While these formal walls of racial discrimination have fallen, informal walls remain as “Coloreds” in South Africa and Aboriginals in Australia continue to seek an expansion of their political, economic, educational, and societal power.
SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 ; Brown v. Board of Education, 1955 ; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Desegregation, School; Resegregation of Schools; Segregation; Segregation, Residential; Segregation, School
Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Orfield, Gary, and Susan E. Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.
Rodney D. Coates
Freed finally of slavery's shackles, blacks in America began the long quest for racial equality. Desegregation, a generic term used to describe elimination of the segregation and racial discrimination that nonwhites confronted at life's every turn, has been the equivalent of their Holy Grail.
While blacks have attacked barriers based on color across a spectrum that includes voting, employment, housing, the administration of justice, access to public facilities, and even sex and marriage, the elimination of discrimination in the public schools has been and remains the most important goal for black Americans in their continuing struggle against racism in this country.
At an early time in the nation's history, blacks hoped an already hostile society might at least share their fear, as a black minister phrased it, "for our rising offspring to see them in ignorance in a land of gospel light." That petition presented in 1787 to the Massachusetts legislature sought a separate school for Boston's black children whose parents had withdrawn them from the harassment and ridicule heaped on them by white teachers and students in some of the new nation's first public schools.
The legislature denied the petition, which reflected fears shared by succeeding generations of black parents who all during the nineteenth century filed dozens of law suits with state courts seeking relief from the racial discrimination they found in the public schools. Depending on the times and the character of the discrimination they faced, black parents have sought equal educational opportunity for their children through the advocacy of either racially separate or integrated schools.
With few exceptions, the courts were no more sympathetic to these petitions than were the school boards whose policies sometimes excluded black children from the public schools entirely and always subjected them to conditions that left little doubt as to which students were deemed members of the superior race. In roberts v. city of boston (1850) a state court rejected a school desegregation petition almost two decades before the adoption of the fourteenth amendment; three decades after its ratification, the United States Supreme Court concluded in plessy v. ferguson (1896) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not prohibit state-sanctioned segregation, citing the Roberts decision as support for the reasonableness of what it called separate but equal facilities. Plessy provided the Constitution's blessing for laws throughout the South that required racial segregation not only in public schools, but in every possible public facility, including cemeteries and houses of prostitution.
The law and much of society enforced the "separate" phase of the Plessy standard to the letter, but the promise of "equal" facilities received only the grudging attention of a public whose racial attitudes ranged from apathy to outright hostility. Deep-South states spent far less for the schooling of black children than for whites. Despite a major effort to equalize segregated schools as a means of forestalling the steadily increasing number of civil rights challenges in the 1950s, the South as a whole expended an average of $165 for every white child, and only $115 for each black in 1954, the year in which segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional.
More than a half century after its Plessy decision, the Supreme Court in brown v. board of education (1954) reviewed the "separate but equal" doctrine in the light of education's importance for children in a modern society, and concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause was violated by segregated schools "even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal.…"
Chief Justice earl warren's ringing rhetoric in the Brown opinion condemned racially segregated schooling as "inherently unequal." He found that the separation by the state of children in grade and high schools solely on the basis of race "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
This decision was the result of long years of planning and litigation by the NAACP, and the committed work of lawyers including thurgood marshall and Robert L. Carter, social scientists like Kenneth Clark, and hundreds of courageous black parents and their children. The decision, most blacks were convinced, required the elimination of segregated school facilities. Black parents knew that state-mandated black schools were a racial insult, and most hoped that if their children attended schools with whites, they would more likely gain access to the same educational resources as white children.
But the determination of civil rights groups representing an ever-increasing number of black parents seeking to join in school desegregation suits was met by the equally determined and, at least initially, far more powerful resistance of southern whites who strongly opposed sending their children to school with blacks and greatly resented the federal coercion involved in school desegregation orders which they equated with the occupation of the region by Union forces following the civil war.
Arguably, opposition by southern working class whites could be predicated on the basis that, by invalidating segregation laws, Brown betrayed postReconstruction promises of white superior status made to them by policymakers in return for political support given during periods when populist movements sought to challenge the monopoly of economic power held by the upper class.
Although the Supreme Court refused to turn the clock back to 1868 to determine whether the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had intended to condone segregated schools, an examination of postReconstruction history shows that policies of segregation reflected a series of political compromises through which working class whites settled their demands for social reform and greater political power. C. Vann Woodward and other historians have shown that segregated schools and facilities were established by legislatures at the insistence of the white working classes who saw color barriers as official confirmation that the society's policymakers would maintain even the poorest whites in a permanent status superior to that designated for blacks.
While not willing to acknowledge that its school desegregation decision would deprive whites of long-held rights of superior status based on race, the Court in Brown v. Board of Education II (1955), signaled that it was aware of the major social upheaval its ruling would require. Rejecting the black petitioners' requests for immediate relief, the Court chose a procedure that would permit the individual resolution of administrative and academic problems. It mandated only a "prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance," and returned the cases to the district courts with the admonition that orders and decrees be entered to admit plaintiffs to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis "with all deliberate speed. …"
But the Court's conciliatory efforts did not avoid and may have encouraged a period of massive resistance by southern elected officials, a rise in the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, and a general upswing in economic intimidation and threats of physical violence against blacks deemed responsible for or participants in the civil rights movement. The Court met open resistance in Little Rock, Arkansas, and elsewhere with firm resolve, as in cooper v. aaron (1958), but for several years condoned pupil placement laws and other procedural devices clearly designed to frustrate any meaningful compliance with the Brown mandate.
Federal courts were far less cautious in applying the Brown decision as the controlling precedent in cases challenging racial segregation in other public facilities. Thus, in the first half-dozen years following Brown, civil rights groups succeeded in desegregating state-operated places of recreation, government buildings, and transportation facilities.
Finally, in 1964, during the height of the sit-in protest movement that was bringing an end to "jim crow" policies in many hitherto segregated privately owned facilities not covered by the fourteenth amendment, the court indicated that the time for mere deliberate speed had run out, in griffin v. school board of prince edward county (1964). But the success of a decade of white resistance to school desegregation was reflected in the statistics. In the eleven states of the old Confederacy, a mere 1.17 percent of black students were attending school with white students by the 1963–1964 school year. The dirgelike progress of school desegregation finally gained momentum through a series of far-reaching lower court orders combined with the federal government's enforcement of Title VI of the civil rights act of 1964. This provision required the cut-off of federal financial assistance to entities that followed racially discriminatory policies. The federal government's enforcement of Title VI was seldom vigorous, but even the threat of losing the federal monies made available under a host of new antipoverty and educational assistance programs in the late 1960s persuaded hundreds of southern school districts that some form of compliance was in their best interests.
In 1968, the Supreme Court in green v. new kent county school board virtually eliminated the offer by a school board of "freedom of choice" to all children as a sufficient compliance with desegregation requirements. The decision was hailed by civil rights lawyers who believed that the Brown mandate could not be implemented unless public schools were rendered nonidentifiable by race. This goal, articulated in the Green case by Justice william j. brennan as requiring school boards to formulate plans that promise "realistically to convert promptly to a system without a "white' school and a "Negro' school, but just schools," was furthered when the Court applied the Green standard to a large, urban school district in North Carolina in swann v. charlotte-mecklenburg board of education (1971). A few years later, the Court held a large northern school district subject to a similar standard in keyes v. school district no. 1 of denver, colorado, (1973). (See school busing.)
But while the percentage of children attending desegregated schools increased impressively, opposition to school desegregation remained. Resistance focused on plans like those approved in both Swann and Keyes requiring the transportation of children in order to achieve a measure of desegregation in each school roughly equivalent to the percentages of white and nonwhite children in the district as a whole. Opponents had gained national political strength, and their support likely played an important role in the election of richard m. nixon as President in 1968. The Nixon administration adopted policies that had the effect of slowing the federal government's participation in the school desegregation campaign, but the Supreme Court rejected Administration-sponsored delay requests in alexander v. holmes county board of education (1969) and Carter v. West Feliciana Parish School Board (1970), although not without cracks in the solid front of unanimous opinions the Court had handed down in school desegregation cases since Brown I.
By 1974, in milliken v. bradley, an appeal from lower court orders requiring the consolidation with the seventy percent black Detroit school system of fifty-three predominantly white suburban school districts, those cracks had grown into a chasm between divergent viewpoints on the appropriateness of school desegregation remedies. The insistence of civil rights lawyers that courts had unlimited discretion to impose racial-balance oriented plans to remedy proven segregation resulted in a significant change in the standards for proving school district liability for violating the Constitution.
In a 5–4 decision, the Court in Milliken held that federal courts could not impose multidistrict remedies to cure a single district's segregation absent findings that the other included school districts had failed to operate unitary school systems within their districts, or were responsible for the segregation in the other districts. Proof of this character could be found in few districts without histories of official, statemandated segregation, and thus plans to desegregate large, urban school districts through metropolitanwide plans were rendered inoperable.
By the late 1970s, roughly half of all nonwhite children in the nation resided in the country's twenty to thirty largest school districts. Minority children averaged sixty percent of the school population in these districts and close to seventy percent in the ten largest districts. Politically if not physically, desegregation in these districts on the Green-Swann model became increasingly difficult.
Lower courts, impressed by detailed prescriptions of racial wrongdoing by urban school boards, continued at the urging of civil rights lawyers to grant relief requiring reassignments and busing to change the racial makeup of schools. But the Supreme Court, now quite divided, set increasingly difficult liability standards in cases from Dayton and Columbus, Ohio; Omaha, Nebraska; Austin, Texas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Indianapolis, Indiana. Plans requiring wholesale reassignment of children in these districts were finally approved, mainly because the proof of past discrimination was so clear. There was little judicial enthusiasm for continued reliance on a remedial process about which there was so much controversy as to its effectiveness even among civil rights proponents.
By this time, a great many black communities were questioning the continued validity of the "neither black schools nor white schools" desegregation approach that had stood as an article of faith since the early post-Brown years. Disenchantment was prompted by the hundreds of black schools closed and the scores of black teachers and principals dismissed in the course of the school desegregation process. In addition, black parents were discovering that the sacrifice involved in busing children across town to mainly white schools did not always eliminate racial discrimination. More litigation had to be prosecuted to challenge resegregation tactics as varied as the use of standardized tests to track black students into virtually all-black classrooms, to the exclusion of blacks from extracurricular programs. In most desegregated school systems, black students were far more likely to be suspended and expelled for disciplinary violations than white students. Black parents able to enroll their children in desegregated schools all too often found themselves protesting policies of in-school discrimination quite similar to those that had led their late eighteenth-century predecessors to petition for separate schools.
The NAACP and the few other groups who sponsored most school desegregation litigation remained firm in their belief that identifiably black schools would always be inferior and must be eliminated. But local black groups in several cities including Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, Dallas, Boston, and Portland, Oregon, decided that mainly black schools in black neighborhoods might provide effective schooling for their children if black parents could be involved more closely in faculty hiring, curriculum selection, and other policymaking aspects of these schools.
In 1975, a court of appeals approved in Calhoun v.Cook, over the vigorous objection of the national NAACP office, a settlement of a twenty-year-old Atlanta school case providing full faculty and employee desegregation but only limited pupil desegregation in exchange for a school board promise to hire a number of blacks in top administrative positions, including a black superintendent of schools.
A few years later, in Milliken v. Bradley II (1977), the Supreme Court approved without dissent a Detroit desegregation plan that gave priority to a range of "educational components" while limiting pupil desegregation in the district that was by now more than eighty percent black to a provision that no school be less than thirty percent black. The Court though was unable to decide and left standing a lower court ruling that an almost all-black subdistrict created by the Dallas school desegregation plan met school desegregation standards. The record showed both that housing patterns and geographical conditions would have made desegregation difficult and that much of the black community in the subdistrict supported its retention.
Public resistance to school desegregation continued into the 1980s even though the likelihood of new court orders was lessened by the Supreme Court's application of higher standards of proof even in litigation where metropolitan relief was not sought. For example, California voters approved an amendment to their state constitution barring state courts from ordering racial balance remedies in cases where, absent a finding that the school board was guilty of a specific intent to discriminate, the Fourteenth Amendment would not require racial balance relief. The Supreme Court upheld this provision in Crawford v. Los Angeles Unified School District (1982).
Civil rights organizations mobilized to meet such challenges, but local black groups increasingly opted for programs that promised to provide equal educational opportunity in neighborhood schools. At the same time, many black parents either moved to suburban areas or sent their children out of their neighborhoods to enable them to attend predominantly white schools.
The quest for effective schooling in the 1980s mirrors those made by black parents in the 1780s and during all the periods between. They and their children have recognized that neither separate schools nor integrated schools will automatically eliminate racist policies intended to provide priority to white children for scarce educational resources. School desegregation programs mandated by the Brown decision, and earnestly sought in hundreds of court cases, have served to slow but have not otherwise much discouraged those policies.
Beyond the real gains made by blacks during the Brown years, there remain millions of black and other minority children whose schooling remains both segregated and inferior. For them, there is ample basis for parental fears as they watch their rising offspring grow "in ignorance in a land of gospel light."
Derrick A. Bell
Bell, Derrick A. (1973) 1980 Race, Racism and American Law. Boston: Little, Brown.
Kalodner, Howard I. and Fishman, James J., eds. 1978 Limits of Justice: The Courts' Role in School Desegregation. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger.
Kluger, Richard 1976 Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.
DESEGREGATION. Efforts to eliminate the legally required separation of the races in schools, housing, transportation, and other public accommodations began almost as soon as segregation laws were enacted. The Supreme Court upheld a law requiring railroads to provide separate facilities for whites and African Americans in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), holding that the Constitution was not violated by laws requiring facilities that, though separate, were equal. In 1915 the Court indicated that it stood ready to enforce the requirement of equality. But Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) was the first case in which a state's segregation law was declared unconstitutional because it failed to ensure that African Americans had access to facilities equal to those available to whites.
In a series of cases involving state universities culminating in Sweatt v. Painter (1950), the Supreme Court held that the facilities at issue were not in fact equal. The states could have responded by investing more money in the separate schools to make them equal. But states faced with court orders found the cost of upgrading too high, and they eliminated their rules barring the enrollment of African Americans in their universities.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) repudiated the idea that separate facilities, at least in education, could ever be equal. The Court's 1955 decision on the appropriate remedy in Brown blurred the distinction between desegregation, meaning the elimination of laws requiring the separation of the races, and integration, meaning a state of affairs in which all races were in fact present in every school or public accommodation. Laws requiring segregation could have been replaced by rules assigning students to schools without regard to race, for example, by assigning all students to their neighborhood schools. The Court, however, required that desegregation occur "with all deliberate speed," suggesting that the goal was integration, a far more difficult accomplishment.
Brown and the emerging civil rights movement extended the challenge to legally required segregation beyond the schools to the South's entire Jim Crow system. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956 was aimed at desegregating the city's bus system, whose rules required African Americans to sit in the back of the bus and give up their seats when whites demanded them. The Supreme Court repeatedly held that all forms of segregation were unconstitutional, usually in short opinions that simply referred to Brown.
Southern resistance to desegregation persisted, and civil rights activists shifted their attention from the courts to the streets. In February 1960 four students in Greensboro, North Carolina, went to the food counter of their local Woolworth's department store and requested service. Remaining after service was denied, they sparked a series of sit-ins at other segregated public accommodations. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored Freedom Rides, in which African Americans boarded interstate buses in the North and refused to comply with segregation laws when the buses crossed into the South. Civil rights activism prompted violent responses from southern defenders of segregation. Freedom Riders were beaten in bus stations while local police officers watched.
The civil rights mobilization of the early 1960s prodded Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Relying on congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, the Civil Rights Act required nondiscrimination in all places of public accommodation, which included
essentially all the nation's restaurants, hotels, and theaters. The act also denied federal funds to school systems that continued to maintain segregated systems. This financial threat led to a rapid increase in the pace of desegregation in the Deep South.
As laws requiring segregated facilities fell, attention turned to de facto segregation, the separation of the races despite the absence of any legal requirement. Schools in the urban North were often segregated in that sense. No state law required separate facilities, but widespread patterns of residential segregation, usually based on historic patterns and differences in the ability of whites and African Americans to afford housing in affluent areas, produced schools that were racially identifiable as white or African American.
In Green v. School Board of New Kent County (1968), a case involving a school system that had been segregated by law in 1954, the Supreme Court said the Constitution required neither white schools nor black schools "but just schools." Applied in northern settings, that holding would have required substantial alterations in existing practices. Resistance to expansive efforts to achieve integration grew as the desegregation effort moved north. The Supreme Court never endorsed the idea that the Constitution required the elimination of de facto segregation, although it was creative in finding that some northern districts had actually imposed segregation by law.
Through the 1990s the Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that allowed formerly segregated school systems to remove themselves from judicial supervision. No laws remained that required the separation of the races. The Civil Rights Act and other statutes had effectively eliminated separation in most places of public accommodation, although discrimination persisted. In those senses desegregation had been achieved. The broader goal of integration remained unmet, however.
Grantham, Dewey W. The South in Modern America: A Region at Odds. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Wilkinson, J. Harvie, III. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954–1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.