Desegregation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Process of dismantling the legally sanctioned system that separated people according to such characteristics as race, religion, or gender.

In the United States, mandated racial segregation in housing, education, employment, and public accommodations and facilities was widespread, particularly in the South, before it was prohibited in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Substantive desegregation began with the 1954 landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education], in which the Supreme Court struck down the separate but equal doctrine that had authorized racial and ethnic segregation and masked racist inequality since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The justices who handed down the Brown decision were appointed by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, all of whom had, to some degree, taken on the mantle of civil rights.School integration and busing

In Brown, the Court unanimously concluded that segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and unconstitutional. In the unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that education was perhaps the most important function of state and local governments and that it was “doubtful that any child may be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied an education.…Such an opportunity is a right which must be available to all on equal terms.” In Brown, the Court also argued that the dehumanizing effects of mandated racial segregation were such that minority children were deprived of equal educational opportunities even when facilities and other tangible factors are equal.

Further Steps

In the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, the Court, which had gained a few pro-civil rights justices appointed by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, redoubled its desegregation efforts. It not merely opened schools and facilities to all races; it sought to integrate these facilities and ensure that culture and custom did not result in or perpetuate segregation. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County[case]Green v. County School Board of New Kent County[Green v. County School Board of New Kent County] (1968), the Court declared that segregated school systems must be dismantled “root and branch,” desegregating facilities, staff, faculty, extracurricular activities, and transportation. These areas of desegregation became known as “Green factors” and were subsequently used as a guide for crafting desegregation plans and for determining whether school districts had achieved unitary status, or fully integrated schools.

Other major steps toward desegregation were taken by the Court in the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[case]Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education] (1971) and Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[case]Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1] (1973) decisions. In Swann, the Court struck down “racially neutral” student assignment plans that produced segregation by relying on existing racially segregated residential patterns. The Court ruled that desegregation must be achieved in each school in a district to the greatest possible extent and approved busing as a means of accomplishing integration. In Keyes, the Court first ruled against segregation policies in schools in the North and West and mandated desegregation in these regions.

Limiting the Scope

Appointments to the Court after 1968 were made by presidents whose campaigns promised a more conservative judiciary and a weakening of civil rights policies. In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon appointed conservative William H. Rehnquist to the Court. Rehnquist, who was later elevated to chief justice by Ronald Reagan, was selected for his belief that the Court should play a more restrained, less activist role. In 1991 President George Bush named Clarence Thomas, a staunch conservative critic of civil rights policy, to replace Thurgood Marshall, the former lawyer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund who had argued the Brown case. By the 1990’s the views of Rehnquist and Thomas had become the majority view of the Court.

Leading decisions made by the Court beginning in 1974 reflect a narrowing of the scope and a partial dismantling of desegregation policy. In Milliken v. Bradley[case]Milliken v. Bradley[Milliken v. Bradley] (1974), the Court blocked efforts to integrate city schools through a plan that featured interdistrict, city-suburban busing. In a 5-4 decision, the Court rejected a plan to integrate Detroit, Michigan’s predominantly African American central-city schools with students from the predominantly white surrounding suburbs, arguing that this remedy would be unfairly punishing to the suburbs. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger cited the “deeply rooted tradition” of local control of public schools as legal rationale. This decision was particularly devastating to civil rights advocates because only a year before, the Court had ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez[case]San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez[San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez] (1973) that children had no constitutional right to equality of school expenditures. Taken together, the Rodriguez and Milliken rulings meant that schools in districts with high numbers of nonwhite students did not have the right to either equalization or integration.

In Milliken v. Bradley[case]Milliken v. Bradley[Milliken v. Bradley] (1977; also known as Milliken II), the Court was faced with providing a remedy for unconstitutional segregation in Detroit schools in the light of Milliken I. The Court ruled that a state could be ordered to pay for educational programs to repair the harm done by illegal segregation in the absence of actual desegregation. In so ruling, the Court returned what many viewed as a modern version of the separate but equal standard.

Other leading cases that indicate a dismantling of desegregation policy include Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell[case]Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell[Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell] (1991), which allowed school boards, after being declared unitary (or integrated) by a federal judge, to be released from any obligation to maintain desegregation, and Freeman v. Pitts[case]Freeman v. Pitts[Freeman v. Pitts] (1992), in which the Court ruled that school districts could be partially released from their desegregation responsibilities without achieving integration in all the areas outlined in the Green decision.

In Missouri v. Jenkins[case]Missouri v. Jenkins[Missouri v. Jenkins] (1995), the Court ruled that Milliken II equalization remedies (paying for programs to repair the harm of segregation in lieu of actually desegregating) should be limited in duration and extent and that proof of correction of the educational harms of segregation was not necessary. In the Jenkins decision, the Court defined rapid restoration of local control of public schools to be a new goal of desegregation cases.

Further Reading
  • Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Orfield, Gary, and Susan Eatonn. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of “Brown v. Board of Education.” New York: New Press, 1996.
  • Wasby, Stephen, Anthony D’Amato, and Rosemary Metrailer. Desegregation from “Brown” to “Alexander”: An Exploration of Supreme Court Strategies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977.
  • Wicker, Tom. Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Brown v. Board of Education

Fourteenth Amendment

Marshall, Thurgood

Milliken v. Bradley

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Plessy v. Ferguson

Race and discrimination

Rehnquist, William H.

School integration and busing

Segregation, de facto

Segregation, de jure

Warren, Earl

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