Chapter 46- redefining racial equality

Desegregating Public Schools

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Desegregating Public Schools

In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. A year later, it had ordered schools to be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.” But a decade later, only 1.2 percent of black children in the South attended integrated schools.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government new powers to promote school desegregation. Government officials pushed school districts to integrate their schools by threatening to cut off federal funds if they did not. By 1968, the proportion of African American students in the South attending schools with whites had risen to 32 percent.

By this time, however, the Supreme Court was losing patience with school districts that were slow to act. In a 1969 case known as Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, the Court took another look at “with all deliberate speed.” The case involved a segregated Mississippi school district that was trying to delay integration. In the Court’s decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote,

There are many places still in this country where the schools are either “white” or “Negro” and not just schools for all children as the Constitution requires. In my opinion there is no reason why such a wholesale deprivation of constitutional rights should be tolerated another minute. I fear that this long denial of constitutional rights is due in large part to the phrase “with all deliberate speed.” I would do away with that phrase completely.

Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 1969

Three years later, the Supreme Court took another look at school segregation in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education [Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education: the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that busing was an acceptable way to achieve school integration] . This case raised the question of whether de facto segregation caused by housing patterns was constitutional. This was the situation in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. Because most children in the district lived in predominantly white or black neighborhoods, they also attended all-white or all-black schools. In 1970, a federal judge ordered the district to use busing to integrate its schools. Under the judge’s desegregation plan, some students, including very young ones, would be bused to schools outside their neighborhoods to create more racially balanced schools.

The school district appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the judge had gone too far. In a unanimous decision delivered in 1971, the Court supported the judge’s busing plan. “We find no basis for holding that the local school authorities may not be required to employ bus transportation as one tool of school desegregation,” wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger. “Desegregation plans cannot be limited to walk-in schools.”

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