Two weeks ago, we commemorated the 58th anniversary of one of the most foundational legal decisions in contemporary American history.
This week marks another milestone in the civil-rights movement: the Supreme Court decision known as Brown II.
On April 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the nation’s highest court declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous bench in Brown I, held that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The first Brown verdict was no doubt momentous. But it was also largely symbolic. It would take more than a year for the Supreme Court to determine how to implement this new integrationist mandate.
It was 57 years ago tomorrow that the same court delivered a decision that would chart the course of public education in the United States for more than half a century.
On May 31, 1955, the last day of the spring term, the Warren bench issued its judgment in Brown II, placing the practice of desegregation in the hands of local governments.
“At stake is the personal interest of the plaintiffs in admission to public school as soon as practicable on a nondiscriminatory basis,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. “To effectuate this interest may call for the elimination of a variety of obstacles in making the transition.”
These obstacles arise out of the specific local conditions of each individual district, Warren continued. And the responsibility for administering such policies falls on individual school authorities.
As such, the decision concluded, the question of relief should be determined by the local courts that heard the original questions—and it is the responsibility of those courts to ensure that remedies are afforded “with all deliberate speed.”
These four words set into motion decades of upheaval, as communities around the country struggled to negotiate this federal mandate toward desegregation.
Some elected to close down public schools, to avoid the prospect of integration.
In Prince Edward County, Virgina, the entire school district shut its doors in September 1959. For the next five years—until the U.S. Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional in 1964—the county provided students with tuition grants to attend local private schools, all of which maintained whites-only admissions policies.
Others developed “freedom of choice” plans. Here, students were automatically enrolled in their previous schools but were given the option of requesting a transfer to another school within the given district or county.
In theory this meant that families could choose where to send their children to school. In practice, however, this choice was impaired by complicated transfer applications, geographic restrictions, and threats of violence and intimidation.
In New Kent County, Virgina, during the three years that the district’s freedom of choice plan was in effect, there were no white students who chose to attend previously all-black schools, and only 15 percent of African American students—115 children in all—successfully enrolled in previously all-white schools.
More broadly, in the decade following the Brown decision, only 1.2 percent of black students in the 11 of the former Confederate states attended schools with white students.
As legal scholar Charles Ogletree writes, “Whereas Brown I made possible the institutional equality first promised in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence… and again in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments, Brown II created the method and manner in which America would resist the mandate of the equality ideal. If Brown I made integration a legal imperative, Brown II, with its decision to proceed “with all deliberate speed,” ensured that the imperative was not implemented as a social imperative.”
The localization of desegregation had the effect of creating a vastly uneven educational landscape in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, a legacy with which the nation continues to grapple today.
Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a fellow at the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.
For further reading, see:
Charles Ogletree, All Deliberate Speed: Reflection on the first half century of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.
William Gordon, “The Implementation of Desegregation Plans Since Brown,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 63 n. 6, summer 1994.
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