Special Feature

School Integration: Ruby Bridges in Context

By Tamika Thompson

During his time in New Orleans, Tavis caught up with New Orleans native Ruby Bridges, who, in 1960, was the first African American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.

Tavis visits with Ruby Bridges at William Frantz Elementary

(To see a video of Tavis’ reflections on Bridges, click here.)

Bridges’ story—captured in Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With“—is bigger than New Orleans and bigger than the South.

Hers is the story of school integration for Blacks. And, while the landmark case for school desegregation is the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Bridges’ story—and the story of all Black students seeking an education in all-white schools—begins in the 19th century, when Blacks weren’t yet free.

1857: “No Rights Which the White Man Was Bound to Respect”

Dred Scott, plaintiff in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case.

After the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, it didn’t matter whether a Black person was a slave or a free person—he/she could not be a U.S. citizen. The ruling held that Blacks were a “subordinate and inferior class of beings” that “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion stated:

“The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can, therefore, claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subjugated to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held power and the government might choose to grant them.”

The civil war began in 1861.

1865: Blacks Not Really Free

The 16th U.S. President's Emancipation Proclamation sought to abolish slavery in the United States.

While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863) was designed to end slavery, Blacks were not free from slavery, in practice, until the end of the Civil War and the enactment of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery (1865).

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress in March 1865 to oversee the transition in the South from slavery to freedom by serving as an intermediary between whites and Blacks, directing schools for freed Blacks and assisting Blacks in state courts.

Lincoln was assassinated in April, 1865.

President Andrew Johnson’s post-war policies upheld the oppression of Blacks in the South. Southern states began passing “Black Codes” to keep Blacks from participating in society. Public schools were segregated, and Blacks were not allowed to vote, testify against whites or serve on juries.

The southern terrorist organization Ku Klux Klan was up and running by 1866.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared that slaves "are, and hence foreward shall be free."

The Emancipation Proclamation declared that slaves “are, and hence foreward shall be free.”

Even though the 14th Amendment’s ratification in 1868 guaranteed “equal protection under the law” and the 15th Amendment (1870) granted Blacks the right to vote, the legacy of slavery was so profound and the idea of Black inferiority so entrenched that, by the close of the 19th century, Blacks were still not afforded equal protection under the law in practice.

Blacks and whites remained equal during that time period, however, on matters of taxation and fighting in war.

The Supreme Court in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899) upheld the Richmond County, Georgia school board’s decision to close the only Black high school in the state. Even though Blacks and whites were evenly taxed, the Supreme Court ruled that “the education of people in schools maintained by state taxation is a matter belonging to the respective States,” and that there was no evidence that the school board’s decision was motivated by racial discrimination.

Blacks were also expected to fight and die for the country. In 1898, Blacks joined the ranks of U.S. soldiers in the Spanish-American War.

1890: Louisiana and the Origins of “Jim Crow”

The South's brand of racist segregation, oppression and terrorism known as "Jim Crow" was based on a minstrel song.

In 1890, Louisiana became an integral part of the national debate on the segregation of Blacks and whites in schools and public accommodations.

Seven years after the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 ruling that discrimination by individuals and private businesses was constitutional, the state of Louisiana became one of the first states to introduce a “Jim Crow” law requiring separate accommodations for Blacks and whites on trains.

(For more on Jim Crow laws in the South, see PBS’ The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.)

A group of concerned Black men from New Orleans formed a committee to test the law. In June 1892, New Orleans native Homer Plessy purposely violated Louisiana’s law by sitting in a train car intended for whites, drawing an arrest.

Six years later, when the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson, it found Louisiana’s “separate but equal” law constitutional. This ruling legally justified racial discrimination, oppression and segregation in southern states; the so-called Jim Crow laws spread like wildfire.

1954: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”

At the turn of the century, Blacks received about 12 percent of funding for public education, but they made up a third of the South’s school-age population.

A report from the U.S. Department of the Interior provides a snapshot of how bleak educational attainment had become for Blacks:

“… less than one percent of black youth attended high school in 1890; and two out of three of those students went to private schools, receiving no government financial support. Out of a population of 9.2 million African Americans in 1900, only 3,880 had graduated from universities or professional schools, and less than one-third of 1 percent of the black community (compared to 5 percent of the white population) would go on to college.”

Holding a poster against racial bias in Mississippi are four of the most active leaders in the NAACP movement, from left: Henry L. Moon, Roy Wilkins, Herbert Hill and Thurgood Marshall.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — which was established in 1909 to defend and uphold civil rights for Blacks by working to stop lynchings and secure fair trials for Blacks — eventually took up the issue of desegregation in school and public accommodations.

Thurgood Marshall joined the NAACP in 1938 and helped establish the organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

By 1950, public opinion on segregation was shifting, albeit slowly. It was the first year that a newly integrated armed forces began fighting the Korean War and the same year that the Supreme Court required the University of Texas Law School to integrate, as it had failed to provide separate facilities that were equal (Sweatt v. Painter).

The NAACP, with Marshall at the helm, began laying the legal groundwork for sustained challenges to state-sanctioned segregation in public schools.

A Black student, Nathanial Steward, 17, recites his lesson surrounded by white fellows and other Black students, May 21, 1954, in Washington, DC.

A series of cases were filed, each stating that the Supreme Court’s previous “separate but equal” doctrine violated the “equal protection” that the 14th Amendment guarantees.

In 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to hear several school segregation cases, incorporating them all into Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Marshall argued before the Supreme Court in Brown.

(For more on the five cases that led to Brown v. Board of Education, click here.)

In May 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional as it, in fact, violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees “equal protection under the law.”

Chief Justice Earl Warren read the court’s unanimous decision:

The NAACP's Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, argued before the Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The Brown ruling overturned the court’s previous “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson and ended decades of racial segregation in public schools.

In May 1955, the Supreme Court issued a second ruling (known as Brown II) which ordered desegregation to occur “with all deliberate speed.”

Though the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was a victory for proponents of integration, the vague language of Brown II meant that a number of states did not immediately desegregate their schools.

The fight to integrate schools in the United States was just beginning.

The Fight for Integration

Whether integration occurred in the North or the South, in primary schools, high schools or on college campuses, there were similarities in all of the cases: one group struggled for desegregation, another resisted, and power struggles between legislatures and courts and among municipalities, states and federal officials were the norm. Some cases were marked by violence; others by the threat of violence. And, it held true that implementation of Brown was slow-moving.

In its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the Supreme Court did not offer a concrete plan for integration; so, many of the states affected by the ruling maintained the status quo.

The "Southern Manifesto," which was the brainchild of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, challenged the Brown decision as an "abuse of judicial power"

In 1956, Autherine Lucy, who wanted to study library science, won a federal lawsuit requiring the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to admit her. Under that court order, Lucy—the first Black to attempt to integrate the University of Alabama—enrolled on February 3. A riot broke out as she approached the school, and unrest continued until the school expelled her three days later.
Strom Thurmond

Lucy was undeterred. She went back to court to ensure that she was again admitted to the university, but the case did not have the necessary support to be carried out. Her expulsion from the University of Alabama was not overturned until 1988.

The opposition to integration was expressed formally with the creation that same year of the so-called “Southern Manifesto.” The brainchild of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd, the manifesto (formally titled the “Declaration of Constitutional Principles”) challenged the Brown decision as an “abuse of judicial power” and called upon southerners to use “all lawful means” to resist school desegregation.

“This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding. Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside mediators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public schools systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the States.”

The declaration was signed by 82 members of the House and 19 senators, including everyone from the former Confederate states.

Despite continued resistance, the fight to integrate schools pressed on.

Nine Black students are escorted by U.S. paratroopers in full battle dress, September 25, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students integrated Little Rock's Central High School.

A pivotal moment in school desegregation occurred in 1957, when nine Black students integrated Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School. The Arkansas National Guard turned the students away and, together with local law enforcement that were tasked with protecting the students, they stood by as the nine Black students were attacked and threatened by an angry white mob on their first integration attempt.

It wasn’t until President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops that the students—Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls—were finally able to integrate the school. They became known as the “Little Rock Nine,” and their perseverance—which was broadcast around the world—captured the national attention.

(More on the “Little Rock Nine“)

Then, of course, there was little Ruby Bridges and the “New Orleans Schools Crisis.” A 1960 federal court order required New Orleans public schools to desegregate. Six-year-old Bridges, who previously walked a great distance to get to the all-Black kindergarten, would integrate William Frantz Elementary that fall, while three other first-graders would integrate McDonogh 19.

Bridges was escorted by federal troops, amid shouts and jeers from an angry white mob. Riots ensued, and white parents pulled their students out of her class. Bridges would be the lone student in the class. Her walk to school on that first day was captured by Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With.”

Even though, at this point, it had already been six years since Brown v. Board of Education, the struggle for school integration still had a long road ahead.

(For a timeline of the integration of schools)

1961 saw the integration of the University of Georgia under court order. Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter entered the all-white school only to be pushed out two days later by an on-campus riot sparked by the KKK. State troops eventually restored order, and the court later reinstated the pair.
Student march for integration, Oct. 1969

Young students picket at a youth march for integrated schools at the Lincoln Memorial in 1969.

In 1962, James Meredith attempted to register for classes at the University of Mississippi. State officials and a violent mob blocked Meredith’s attempt. President John F. Kennedy gave Meredith the protection of federal troops and marshals, but the on-campus riot was only made worse when federal marshals came under attack by local integration resistors. Two people were killed, nearly 200 marshals were injured and, although Meredith was able to enroll, the federal troops remained on campus until 1963.

By 1968—14 years after the Brown decision—the courts were still dealing with systematic resistance to school desegregation. In one case—Green v. County School Board of New Kent County—the school board used a “freedom-of-choice” policy that allowed families to choose where they would send students. The Supreme Court would have none of it and demanded quantifiable measures of desegregation.

Justice William J. Brennan delivered the court’s opinion:

“The New Kent School Board’s “freedom-of-choice” plan cannot be accepted as a sufficient step to “effectuate a transition” to a unitary system. In three years of operation, not a single white child has chosen to attend Watkins school, and although 115 Negro children enrolled in New Kent school in 1967 (up from 35 in 1965 and 111 in 1966), 85% of the Negro children in the system still attend the all-Negro Watkins school. In other words, the school system remains a dual system. Rather than further the dismantling of the dual system, the plan has operated simply to burden children and their parents with a responsibility which Brown II placed squarely on the School Board. The Board must be required to formulate a new plan and, in light of other courses which appear open to the Board, such as zoning, fashion steps which promise realistically to convert promptly to a system without a “white” school and a “Negro” school, but just schools.”

(Read the full text of Green v. County School Board of New Kent County.)

Resistance to school integration in the North

Demonstrators picket in front of a school board office protesting segregation of students.

The North—often seen as progressive supporters of Blacks—has its own history of resistance to school integration.

School segregation was illegal in most northern states after the Civil War, but the majority of the Black population still resided in the South at that time.

It wasn’t until the so-called “Great Migration,” when more than a tenth of the nation’s Black population voluntarily relocated to the North from 1910 to 1930, that northern whites’ commitment to integration would be tested.

With the influx of Blacks, school segregation in the North increased dramatically.

In areas with large Black populations, school boards implemented de facto segregation, drawing district lines to shut Blacks out of white schools and depriving the Black schools of equal funding and resources. In some cases, districts would physically separate whites and Blacks within the same school. Violence was not unheard of when these de facto segregation practices were challenged.

Another indirect approach to school segregation carried out in the North during this time was residential segregation. It was not uncommon in urban areas like Chicago for Black families to be made the victims of violence for moving into a “white neighborhood.”

In this 1961 Time magazine article, an example of white resistance to school integration was noted:

“In the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, the board of education got a jolt from Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman, who called it “deliberately” segregationist. He charged that the board gerrymandered district lines to keep New Rochelle’s Lincoln School virtually all-Negro. Judge Kaufman ruled in favor of Negro parents who vainly tried to register their children at mixed schools last fall, ordered the board to desegregate Lincoln by next fall. The decision was a sharp blow at the “neighborhood school” concept, which breeds de facto segregation throughout the North.”

Beyond Brown

While the courts in Brown v. Board of Education and other pro-integration cases, like 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley, dealt with de jure segregation, the cases do not address de facto school segregation.

What to do about mortgage discrimination and residential segregation? How to prohibit redlining and reverse redlining? How to enforce the spirit of Brown and ensure that the gap in test scores between white and Black students is abolished forever?

These less overt issues (some of which were present prior to Brown) were used to sidestep the requirements of the Brown ruling. So addressing these tactics and their social, political, ideological and economic motivations are central to carrying out school integration.

On the one hand, it has been argued that school integration has had a positive effect on the scholastic achievement of Blacks, the long-term socio-economic outcomes for some Blacks and race relations between whites and Blacks nationally.

Others have argued that school integration is still incomplete; that this country is still experiencing de facto segregation and has gone down a path of resegregation.

In a 2006 report from The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, the facts of resegregation were laid bare:

“… though generations of students have been born and graduated, segregation is not gone. In fact, in communities that were desegregated in the Southern and Border regions, segregation is increasing; and in regions that were never substantially desegregated, including many metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, segregation is growing in degree and complexity as the nation becomes increasingly multiracial. The resegregation of blacks is greatest in the Southern and Border states and appears to be clearly related to the Supreme Court decisions in the l990s permitting return to segregated neighborhood schools. These changes, and the continuing strong relationship between segregation and many forms of educational inequality, compound the already existing disadvantage of historically excluded groups. The rapid growth of these excluded populations in conditions of intensifying segregation make urgent the development of plans and policies to transform diversity into an asset for all children and society, rather than continuing to separate children in a way that harms both those excluded from better schools and white students in those schools who are not being prepared for success in multiracial communities and workplaces of the future.

School segregation is often perceived as an old and obsolete issue.Reactions include claims that it was solved long ago, that, on the contrary, experience shows it cannot be solved, or that we have learned to make separate schools genuinely equal.None of these perceptions is true.Past research showed that, after a period of desegregation in the late 1960s, black students became increasingly resegregated in the South and Border states.Latino students, who have been excluded from serious desegregation efforts, are becoming even more segregated than black students in Southern and Western regions. Yet, despite recent trends in resegregation, the South and Border states remain among the least segregated for black students, suggesting that desegregation orders in the past have been effective, and that segregation is not an intractable issue. Further, the strong relationship between poverty, race and educational achievement and graduation rates shows that, but for a few exceptional cases under extraordinary circumstances, schools that are separate are still unquestionably unequal. Segregation is an old issue but one that is deeply rooted and difficult to resolve and extremely dangerous to ignore.”

Last modified: March 28, 2014 at 12:19 pm
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