How the Supreme Court Shaped School Segregation

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For more than a century, the Supreme Court has played a powerful role in defining the racial composition of public schools in the U.S. From the mid-1800s, when the court defined “separate but equal” to recent challenges to integration, here’s a look at some of the landmark decisions.

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson

The case: A black man, Homer Adolph Plessy, was charged with breaking state law by riding in a white railroad car in Louisiana. The court ruled that as long as the state had equitable facilities for both whites and blacks, there was no need to integrate them.

The fallout: The case established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which allowed segregated schools and other facilities for the next 58 years.

1938: Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada

The case: African-American student Lloyd Gaines was turned away from the all-white law school at the University of Missouri because he was black. The state had no law school for black students, so Missouri offered to pay his tuition at a black school in another state instead. Gaines refused, arguing before the Supreme Court that his rejection was a violation of the 14th Amendment. The court ruled for Gaines, deciding that the school must admit him if the state couldn’t provide equal facilities for all students.

The fallout:  While it didn’t overturn the “separate but equal” principle, the ruling marked the beginning of the erosion of the Plessy decision by insisting that states provide equal facilities for all students if they are to be segregated.

SM: I’m a little confused by this — if Plessy said separate but equal, how is this different?

1954: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The case: The case, brought on behalf of black schoolchildren, argued that the separate schools for black children in Topeka, Kans. were inferior, with out-of-date textbooks and scant supplies, but that those children were nonetheless denied admittance to the white schools in their community. In a unanimous ruling, the court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The fallout: The landmark case invalidated Plessy, but offered no guidance for school districts on how or when to integrate their schools. The case marked the beginning of a protracted legal fight to integrate public schools.

1955: Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al (Brown II)

The case: Topeka officials appealed to the court to determine how they should be required to implement the integration order. The Supreme Court held that the districts were responsible for figuring out how to integrate their schools, and could take more time if necessary to work out the details, but that they should proceed with “all deliberate speed.”

The fallout: Many school districts and lower courts interpreted the ruling as an opportunity to delay their integration efforts. Some closed down schools rather than allow black children to attend, and encouraged white parents to enroll their children in private academies, some of which still operate today.

1964: Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward Co.

The case: After Brown, the Virginia legislature organized a campaign against integration known as “massive resistance.” As part of that effort, Prince Edward County severed funding for its public schools, forcing them to close. It provided vouchers to all children to attend private schools, but at the time all of those schools were white-only. A federal court ordered Prince Edward County to reopen the public schools, and the county appealed to the Supreme Court, which found that the schools must be reopened. The court also ordered the county to raise taxes to funnel more funding to the public school system.

The fallout: For four years, there was no formal education for black children in the county. The case highlighted the court’s growing frustration with resistance to integration in southern states.

1968: Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

The case: The Virginia county had maintained its segregated school system through a “freedom of choice” plan under which whites chose to go to the all-white school and most blacks continued to choose the black school. The court considered this to be a form of token compliance. It also ordered the removal of segregation in schools by “root and branch.”

The fallout: The Green decision sped up integration efforts, and established a new criteria to determine whether a district was complying with orders to integrate, including measuring the ratio of black and white students and teachers, and the quality of the facilities available to all students.

School integration would peak in 1988. In the south, the percentage of black children in white schools, once at zero, rises to nearly 44 percent.

1991: Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell

The case: Oklahoma City had been forced to integrate its schools under a federal desegregation plan in 1972, and a few years later, the court found that the city had complied with the plan. In 1984, the city attempted to reduce busing, but opponents tried to block the plan, arguing the city remained under the federal integration injunction. The court found that because a federal court had previously declared the city in compliance, it could be released from the order.

The fallout: The Oklahoma City school system returns to neighborhood schools. The case set a precedent to allow school districts to be released from desegregation orders if they could prove that they had successfully integrated their public schools. 

2007: Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1

The case: The school districts of Seattle and Louisville had both voluntarily adopted plans to integrate schools based on race. In Seattle, children could apply to any high school, but once several schools filled up, race was used as the first factor in determining where the overflow students would be placed. In Louisville, students were assigned to schools by race to meet certain percentages. The Supreme Court ruled that the plans were unconstitutional, because they forced students to attend certain schools based solely on their race even though a court hadn’t previously determined that the districts were segregated. The court also considered the racial classifications to be overly broad: Seattle categorized students only as “white” or “non-white,” and Louisville grouped students into “black,” “white” and “other.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 opinion.

The fallout: The court didn’t strike down all integration plans based on race. But in tightening standards for such plans, the ruling clears the way for future challenges.

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