Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated

Twenty years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unlawful, schools in the South had achieved a greater degree of desegregation than had schools in the North. A report published by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that a long history of housing discrimination in northern cities had adversely affected minorities’ opportunities to attend superior, predominantly white, schools, especially in the suburbs of large cities.

Summary of Event

It was not until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court took a dramatic step against the well-established and accepted policy of racial segregation in such areas as public facilities and government services. In 1896, the Court had approved “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. That decision effectively permitted states to operate separate and decidedly inferior schools for African American children. Black students were crammed into crumbling buildings with few supplies while white students within the same districts had superior buildings, programs, and equipment. Fifty-eight years later, the Supreme Court’s Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) declared that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore in violation of the equal protection principles in the U.S. Constitution. American school districts were informed that they could no longer practice racial segregation in public schools. The decision was aimed primarily at southern states and border states in which segregation was maintained by official government policies. Schools;racial segregation
Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.
Racial and ethnic discrimination
[kw]Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated (Mar. 11, 1975)
[kw]Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated, Southern (Mar. 11, 1975)
[kw]Racially Segregated, Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least (Mar. 11, 1975)
[kw]Segregated, Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially (Mar. 11, 1975)
Schools;racial segregation
Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.
Racial and ethnic discrimination
[g]North America;Mar. 11, 1975: Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated[01910]
[g]United States;Mar. 11, 1975: Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated[01910]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 11, 1975: Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated[01910]
[c]Education;Mar. 11, 1975: Southern Schools Are Found to Be the Least Racially Segregated[01910]
Flemming, Arthur S.
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;school desegregation
Coleman, James S.
Pettigrew, Thomas F.

Very little changed in the immediate aftermath of the Brown decision. Many school districts took no action to correct the thorough segregation within their schools. In many southern districts, elected officials and school administrators openly defied the Court’s decisions. They tried various tricks to prevent the dismantling of segregation. In one town, public schools were abolished and then reopened as whites-only private schools, thus leaving black students with no schools at all. In other cities, freedom-of-choice plans created the hypothetical possibility that blacks could transfer to previously all-white schools. In practice, however, spaces were not made available to students wishing to transfer. If black students did succeed in transferring, they often faced harassment by mobs that hounded and threatened them.

African American students continued to be deprived of access to the best programs and facilities, which were almost always reserved for white students. Because the Supreme Court has little ability to enforce its decisions immediately and effectively, it took time and additional lawsuits by black parents before school districts began to reduce the barriers of racial discrimination.

Ten years after the Brown decision, only 1.2 percent of the nearly three million black students in the South attended schools with whites, and most of these students were in Texas. No black students in Mississippi attended schools with whites, and only ten black students attended schools with whites in South Carolina. Black students had won a significant legal victory in the Brown case, but they still had little to show for it. Although the existence of segregated schools violated constitutional law, few school systems in the South had changed their segregated structures.

In 1964, after finally overcoming the previously successful obstructionist tactics of southern senators and representatives, Congress passed a comprehensive civil rights law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 contained a number of provisions aimed at ending racial discrimination in, among other things, employment and public accommodations. The act also provided for federal administrative enforcement to push recalcitrant school districts to desegregate. Under Title IV Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 04 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] of the act, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was empowered to provide funding and technical assistance to schools undergoing desegregation. Schools embarking seriously on a course of desegregation could now be rewarded with federal funds. Title VI Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 06 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] of the act gave HEW the power to initiate proceedings to remove all federal assistance from schools that failed to desegregate. This was a potentially powerful weapon because many schools benefited from a variety of federal programs. If they continued to disobey the Supreme Court’s directives, these schools could lose money that they were accustomed to receiving.

As HEW began to use its “carrot” (Title IV) and its “stick” (Title VI) in the South, school systems finally began to dismantle the segregated school systems that had been in place for decades. School systems were pushed into remedial action through the intervention of the federal government (involving actions by HEW and the U.S. Department of Justice) and through lawsuits filed by black parents seeking to implement the Brown decision.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard M. Nixon spoke against the use of busing to achieve school desegregation. Busing (school desegregation) Busing was unpopular with many southern whites, and Republican candidate Nixon attracted many people who had traditionally voted for Democratic candidates. Republicans and southern Democrats in Congress proposed legislation that would have limited the ability of HEW to enforce desegregation orders against school districts. When Nixon was elected president, he reduced enforcement efforts by HEW and the Justice Department against segregated southern schools, and he declined to employ vigorously HEW’s power to withdraw funding from schools that refused to comply with desegregation orders.

In 1975, an advisory agency for the federal government, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, issued a series of reports concerning the state of racial equality. The reports examined the existence of racial disparities in housing, employment, public accommodations, education, and the administration of justice. The reports were designed to assess how much change had occurred during the twenty years since the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 decision against racial segregation in Brown. The visible spokesperson and leader for the commission was Arthur S. Flemming, a former secretary of HEW under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Because Flemming was a respected Republican, his participation in organizing and disseminating studies that were critical of racial progress within the United States gave bipartisan credibility to the belief that the country still had much work ahead before racial discrimination would be reduced meaningfully.

The commission’s report on education, titled Twenty Years After Brown: Equality of Educational Opportunity, was issued in March, 1975. The report made strong recommendations for increasing the government’s enforcement efforts by withdrawing financial assistance from school districts that did not comply.

In addition to recommending increased enforcement, the report assessed the state of school desegregation throughout the country. Among the most striking findings contained in the report was evidence that southern schools were actually less racially segregated than northern schools. Although southern schools had remained segregated until the period of vigorous federal enforcement from 1964 to 1969, during 1968 and 1969 the percentage of minority students in the South who attended predominantly white schools climbed to over 40 percent. By 1972, this percentage had moved only slightly higher, to 46 percent. This was well above the 28 percent figure for the North.

The report noted that a long history of housing discrimination in northern cities had adversely affected minorities’ opportunities to attend superior, predominantly white, schools, especially in the suburbs of large cities. While many minority students in the South had gained access to the same educational resources enjoyed by white students, fewer minority students in the North enjoyed comparable opportunities.


The report of the Commission on Civil Rights marked the final chapter in the national policy debate about desegregation. By showing that schools had been more effectively desegregated in the South than in the North, the report exacerbated continuing controversies about both the extent of discrimination in the North and the usefulness of busing as a tool to overcome segregation.

The busing controversy moved from the South to the North in 1973, when a Supreme Court decision affecting the Denver schools elicited adverse political reactions from northern whites who did not wish to have their children participate in such programs. Northerners in Congress joined their southern colleagues in increased efforts to pass legislation designed to limit the power of courts and the federal government to implement desegregation plans.

During the 1970’s, members of Congress frequently cited the views of James S. Coleman, a prominent sociologist at the University of Chicago, whose earlier work had been used to justify the use of busing but who later voiced criticism of busing’s effectiveness. Coleman and other critics of busing suggested that whites were leaving city school systems because of desegregation plans, thereby defeating the possibility of eliminating single-race schools in large cities. The “white flight” issue raised by Coleman and others was refuted by other scholars, such as Thomas F. Pettigrew, a social psychologist at Harvard University. Their studies indicated that the gradual movement from city to suburb was a long-standing phenomenon not tied to busing.

Just as Congress and the president acted to limit the expansion of desegregation, the Supreme Court, which included four Nixon appointees, changed its previous role as a staunch advocate of desegregation. In 1974, a Supreme Court decision concerning the Detroit schools effectively eliminated the possibility of imposing desegregation plans that would include affluent suburbs in city school districts.

The 1975 report by the Commission on Civil Rights further fueled the debate about the desirability and effectiveness of busing, but it did not lead to increased efforts to desegregate schools. By 1975, all three branches of the federal government had acted to limit busing. The commission’s report was a final, ineffective warning that racial separation through residential patterns between city and suburb was a primary source of segregation and unequal educational opportunities for northern African American children. As soon as racial discrimination was recognized as a serious problem that extended outside of the South, the governmental institutions that had imposed changes on the southern schools diminished their enforcement efforts. Millions of students in big-city school systems thus continued to attend deteriorating, overcrowded, predominantly minority schools that, when compared with the resource-rich suburban schools nearby, looked very much like the openly segregated schools that Brown v. Board of Education had purported to outlaw in 1954. Schools;racial segregation
Commission on Civil Rights, U.S.
Racial and ethnic discrimination

Further Reading

  • Dimond, Paul R. Beyond Busing: Inside the Challenge to Urban Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Provides detailed description of several school desegregation cases. Contains good descriptions of the individual lawyers, judges, and school officials involved in litigation concerning busing. Presents useful descriptions of evidence and courtroom testimony that affected judicial decisions.
  • Harvard Educational Review. Equal Educational Opportunity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. Collection of essays on school desegregation provides a good picture of the thinking of experts during the time desegregation was proceeding in the South but had not yet been applied systematically to the North. Includes contributions by James Coleman and Thomas Pettigrew, the scholars who later debated the merits of busing.
  • Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of “Brown v. Board of Education” and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Thorough, readable history of racial segregation in American schools and the various lawsuits in the early twentieth century that attacked discrimination. Presents one of the most detailed descriptions available of the litigants, lawyers, and judges who shaped the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Includes a review of events through the early 1970’s.
  • Orfield, Gary. Must We Bus? Segregated Schools and National Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989. Provides a comprehensive review of the history, implications, and consequences of busing plans to achieve school desegregation. Discusses the actions by presidents, federal agencies, Congress, and the courts as political considerations affected the enforcement and expansion of desegregation in northern school districts.
  • Pettigrew, Thomas F., ed. Racial Discrimination in the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Collection of essays discusses discrimination and innovative proposals to advance equality that were under consideration by experts at the time the Commission on Civil Rights issued its report. Accessible to general readers.
  • U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Twenty Years After Brown: Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1975. After the Commission on Civil Rights issued its series of reports on the state of racial equality, it published the reports in the form of a book. Chapter 2 contains the report that discussed the progress of school desegregation in the South and the lack of progress in the North.

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