This chapter introduces students to the post-World War II period with special emphasis on Brown v. Board of Education and the subsequent resistance to Brown in southern states. Institutional forms of discrimination are explained and why the Supreme Court’s overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (and Cumming v. Richmond) was so significant during the Civil Rights Movement. The resistance to Brown and various southern strategies to circumvent the decision are, including information on Little Rock, Arkansas and the deployment of federal troops is included. Moreover, a focus is given to the federal role in school funding, particularly the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which was signed into law during President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, as well as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s broader War on Poverty are included. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a means to enforce desegregation is discussed, and the conflict over school busing is highlighted. Related to conflicts over school busing plans, the following Supreme Court decisions are included in order to focus on the Court’s changing rationales toward busing: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, Milliken v. Bradley, and Meredith v. Jefferson County Public Schools. President Richard Nixon’s Compromise is included, and the effects of the Cold War and McCarthyism on schools and curricula are highlighted as well.
Upon completing this module, students will be able to:
- Understand the rationales given for (and the criticisms of) increased federal involvement over public schooling in the post-World War II period.
- Articulate the root problems related to unequal funding in education
- Articulate the concentration of poverty in inner cities, particularly as highlighted in the Kerner Commission’s Coleman Report.
- Explain the underlying complexities of the Red Scare and how McCarthyism served as its ideological façade.
- Describe the federal government’s response to the launching of Sputnik and the consequences for federal involvement in schools.
- Articulate Richard Hofstadter’s criticism of anti-intellectualism in America during this time period.
- Critically analyze the institutional forms of discrimination and racism perpetuated by the Court’s historical decisions in Plessy v. Ferguson and Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education.
- Articulate how the Supreme Court circumvented the intent of the Equal Protection Clause in these court cases.
- Comprehend the complex strategies used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leading up to and including Brown v. Board of Education.
- Critically analyze the various forms and strategies of resistance that took place following the Brown v. Board decision in 1954.
- Understand the various changes in view toward school busing that occurred in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education, Milliken v. Bradley, and Meredith v. Jefferson County Public Schools.
- Articulate why the Civil Rights Movement served as a national educative moment for the nation.
- Articulate how other disadvantaged and oppressed groups (Mexican Americans, Native Americans, women, and people with disabilities) utilized similar arguments in their pursuit of equality and respect.
Part 2, Chapter 14 Preface to Readings
As Diane Ravitch asserted years ago, “Each era” in American history “produced its own rationale for federal aid,” but “the major theme of the 1945” Senate committee hearings on federal aid to education highlighted “the lack of equal opportunity in” schooling, as well as the fact that “education was in a state of dire need” of financial resources and more equitable funding (1983, 5). The tradition of school governance in America has maintained some semblance of local control since the advent of common schooling in the mid-nineteenth century, but while states exercise ultimate control over their systems of public education, the federal government provided only sporadic assistance throughout most of our history. For example, the federal government established temporary freedmen’s schools following the Civil War in order to provide basic literacy for ex-slaves. In addition, as a response to the needs of an industrial economy and the additional occupational skills required of working-class students, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, funding vocational education. The National School Lunch Program was passed in 1946 in order to enhance learning through better nutrition, and years later in response to the anxiety created over the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik, Congress passed the 1958 National Defense Education Act providing increased federal funding for math, science, and foreign languages in public schools. While these examples are not exhaustive, they illustrate the piecemeal federal approach to funding public schools. In other words, if a problem was perceived as a crisis and reached the federal legislative agenda, it was more likely to attract congressional funding, but all of these examples illustrate a periodic yet growing reliance on federal spending intended to remedy narrowly defined problems.
In response to the findings that emerged during the Senate Committee’s 1945 review of federal aid to education, it became increasingly apparent that schools across regions and the nation as a whole experienced extreme funding inequalities, and southern states tended to reveal the greatest inequality as a result of segregated school systems. Teacher pay was also a problem with rural and African American teachers often being paid much less than their white and urban counterparts (Ravitch, 1983, 3-6).
The traditional reliance on property taxes to fund local schools served as one of the root problems that perpetuated large discrepancies in school funding within states and across the nation. Property taxes had long been used to fund local schools primarily because of their stability compared to other forms of taxation, such as the sales tax, which tended to be more volatile and less dependable during economic downturns. Nevertheless, use of property taxes to fund public schools institutionalized a very unequal method of school finance. Wealthier school districts (based on higher property tax values) were able to adequately fund public schools and provide extensive resources for them while poorer areas often suffered as property in these areas tended to be assessed at lower values resulting in fewer funds and resources. Poorer schools experienced much lower per-student funding formulas than did schools in high property value areas, diminishing the notion that schools provide equal opportunities for all students, an initial goal of the nineteenth-century common school reformers. Campaigns calling for federal funding to remedy these inequalities were nothing new in 1945. As Ravitch explains, “Bills for federal aid had traditionally foundered for three reasons: race, religion, and fear of federal control.” For instance, “No matter how bleak the plight of the schools, every effort to formulate [federal] legislation had been stymied by conflicts over whether to fund the South’s racially segregated schools; whether to fund nonpublic (largely Catholic) schools; and how to prevent federal subsidization from becoming federal domination of local schools” (1983, 5). These political conflicts represent the complex and multifaceted nature of education policy and school funding in America. Matters of race, public v. private school funding, and federal v. state control over schooling loomed large in debates over federal funding of schools, particularly since states enjoyed ultimate authority over their education systems.
In addition to the inequity produced by the reliance on property taxes to fund schools, other changes took place following World War II to worsen already existing inequalities. For instance, after the War, many whites fled the inner cities and moved to newly created suburbs. This white flight resulted in highly segregated communities as inner cities became increasingly non-white while suburbs became white homogenous enclaves. Furthermore, when any kind of flight occurs from communities this results in falling property values. Property values in the inner city fell while property values in suburbs were substantially augmented by greater demand for family housing in these areas. The federal government actually facilitated this white flight in a couple of ways. First, by creating the interstate highway system in the 1950s, it made it much easier for whites to flee to the suburbs and to continue working in cities. Second, the Federal Housing Authority subsidized home ownership by offering low interest loans to suburban families. Simultaneously, federally subsidized housing tended to be constructed in concentrated inner city and high minority areas. In addition, since inner city businesses often followed whites to the suburbs in order to maintain customer demand, this transition diminished the number of good paying jobs for residents of blighted city areas. While de jure segregation was no longer legal, white flight contributed to greater de facto segregation and it increased segregated schooling. Suburban school districts existed separately from those in the inner cities, enhancing inequalities in school funding. This concentrated poverty began resulting in racial conflicts in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan. Reacting to these conflicts, President Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, to ascertain why this conflict was occurring and how it might be remedied. The work of the commission was published in a 1968 concluding that, “Segregation and poverty have been created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” America, the report concluded, was “moving…toward two societies, one black, one white –separate and unequal.” However, as James Ryan has pointed out, “most white Americans chose not to implicate themselves” and “they refused to accept responsibility for the actions of those who had preceded them or for present-day injustices, because the idea that inequalities pervaded American society did not fit their image of America” as exceptional (2010, 63-64). Nor did many white Americans want to confront the notion, let alone accept the view, that they enjoyed advantages based on race. The Kerner Commission highlighted a number of structural problems (some of which are referenced above) that continue to be perennially in nature.
Structural problems are not only complex and more difficult to remedy, but also policymakers are often unwilling to pursue the necessary redistributive policies that would address deeply rooted inequality maintained by social, political, and economic institutions and policies. To do so would be to commit political suicide, resulting in incremental remedial policies that are limited in their effectiveness. There are many examples of this approach including, but not limited to, the perennial attempt to solve many of societies’ problems by focusing, not on their comprehensive structural origins, but rather on their consequences. In other words, rather than attempting to resolve the root causes of de facto segregation, racial isolation, the concentration of poverty in inner-cities, the lack of economic opportunities caused by white flight, school district gerrymandering, the practices of redlining and block-busting, it is often easier for policymakers to focus on cursory or Band-Aid approaches intended to allay harmful outcomes. This diverts the responsibility for addressing the root causes of society’s ills away from policymakers by assigning academic culpability to the schools (teachers, students, and administrators) that struggle to operate within a complex structural system of imposed inequity. There are multiple contemporary examples, including the punitive policies created by No Child Left Behind to hold teachers and students accountable for the latter’s performance on high-stakes, standardized tests with little regard for the structural problems that contribute to or depress academic achievement, not to mention the problem of relying on standardized tests as a measure of academic success, particularly when poorer schools tend to have much higher percentages of English language learners, students with disabilities, immigrants, and children in poverty compared to their more affluent and homogeneous suburban counterparts. This is not to suggest that attempts to remedy outcomes are ineffectual, nor is it always the case that large redistributive reforms guarantee positive results. Rather, it is important to keep in mind the potentially limited impact remedies often have when they fail to focus on the root of the problems, and it is equally true that poorly developed policies that attempt to address root causes also do not guarantee success. When it comes to the lack of academic achievement, rarely is a single remedy sufficient to resolve the problem, particularly when the problem occurs as a convergence of multiple issues. Federal aid to education, for example, can help, but because it focuses solely on equalizing funding of schools, aid falls short of addressing other complex problems that are the result of additional structural factors.
Johnson’s Great Society and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act
“Unlike the New Deal,” according to Eric Foner, “the Great Society was a response to prosperity, not depression.” Greater prosperity followed World War II as witnessed by substantial economic growth stimulated caused in part “by increased government spending” and tax cuts. However, as the Kerner Commission would conclude in 1968, there were two Americas, and with greater post-war prosperity and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson believed the time was ripe to declare a war on poverty, which served as “the centerpiece of [his] Great Society” (Foner, 2012, 971). In 1965, Johnson worked with the Democratically controlled Congress in order to pass what became known as the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The ESEA served as the largest total expenditure of federal funds on the nation’s public schools in history. While the purpose of the law included increased federal funding for school districts with high levels of poor students, in order to insure the law’s passage, the concentrated funding formulas were loosened so that most members of Congress could tell their constituents that they were the successful recipients of federal largess. The final law that passed originally included six Titles (sections). Title I served as the primary legislative focus and included about 80 percent of the laws total funding. Title I funds were distributed to poorer schools districts in an attempt to remedy the unequal funding perpetuated by reliance on property taxes. The other four Titles provided federal funding for school libraries, textbooks and instructional materials, English language acquisition, educational research, and funds to state departments of education to help them implement and monitor the law. This resulted in the growth of state power alongside the expansion of federal power since states gained greater oversight of federal programs and mandates. The U.S. Constitution gives absolutely no authority to the federal government over public schooling or school funding. However, the Supreme Court has dismissed many (but not all) state challenges to federal mandates in areas where the sole responsibility remained with the states. While states often looked to the federal government for help during the Great Depression and other crises, states have otherwise made it a habit to protect their policy turf from federal intrusion. They typically did this by relying on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, often referred to as the “states’ rights amendment.” According to this amendment, “Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively.” Regardless, states often must accept the stipulations that accompany federal funds (generally referred to as grants-in-aid). In relation to the ESEA, this meant that states had to use these grants-in-aid for the purposes for which they were given. This law is currently identified as No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002. The passage of ESEA and Johnson’s other Great Society programs, according to Diane Ravitch, was “the first time in the nation’s history [that] domestic welfare programs and foreign assistance had broad bipartisan support.” However, “the consensus on issues like social security and the United Nations coexisted with a rising tide of social conflict” including “labor unrest, shortages of goods, fear of renewed international tensions, and anxiety about domestic subversion” (Ravitch, 1983, 8-9).
The Post-WWII Reaction to the New Deal and the Next Red Scare
Every era has its crises (real or illusory), and when these reach the national political agenda, we can expect reaction and change. World War II was over, but a new battle quickly reemerged; namely, the Red Menace. Harry Truman intensified efforts to contain the spread of communism abroad including but not limited to his involvement in the Korean War. At home, a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, ratcheted up an anti-communism campaign at home. McCarthy set out on a witch-hunt to uncover communists he believed had infiltrated American government, Hollywood, and American universities and schools. Recognizing McCarthyism as part of a larger American tradition of anti-intellectualism, historian Richard Hofstadter opened the first pages of his infamous Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1970, with a discussion of McCarthy’s tactics as emblematic of this tradition.
Primarily it was McCarthyism which aroused the fear that the critical mind was at a ruinous discount in this country. Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations –he was after bigger game –but intellectuals were in the line of fire, and it seemed to give special rejoicing to his followers when they were hit. His sorties against intellectuals and universities were emulated throughout the country by a host of less exalted inquisitors. Then, in the atmosphere of fervent malice and humorless imbecility stirred up by McCarthy’s barrage of accusations, the campaign of 1952 dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism in the opposing candidates (1970, 3).
The underlying goal of McCarthyism, according to Hofstadter, had less to do with uncovering communists and more to do with the witch-hunt, the ability to recklessly and irresponsibly to tear down one’s opponents. “His proliferating multiple accusations…widened the net of suspicion and enabled it to catch many victims who were no longer, or had never been, Communists.” As a reaction against the previous New Deal era that had shaped the growing intervention of the state, McCarthy’s “bullying was welcomed because it satisfied a craving for revenge and a desire to discredit the type of leadership the New Deal had made prominent” (Hofstadter, 1970, 41).
The Red Scare hysteria was also orchestrated by a number of reactionary groups attempting to purge schools, not only of communist sympathizers, but also of “communist” texts. As Jonathan Zimmerman has written, it was Allen Zoll who’s “bitter invective against textbooks,” served as “the most controversial figure of the right-wing network” (2002, 92). What McCarthy was trying to effect at the national level, Zoll’s coordinated focus penetrated America’s schoolrooms. Zoll’s National Council for American Education served as an organizational centerpiece devoted to investigating textbooks for “Red” content.
The national ant-communist frenzy resulted in a variety of groups joining the cause to seek out disloyalty. “Private organizations like the American Legion, National Association of Manufacturers, and Daughters of the American Revolution also persecuted individuals for their beliefs, according to Foner (2012, 906). These groups also launched national and local campaigns to weed out what they believed to be anti-American content in public school textbooks in order to control public opinion in America (Spring, 2008, 316-324). Historian Henry Steele Commanger lashed out at McCarthyism crude anti-communist crusade in a 1947 essay published in Harper’s:
What is this new loyalty? It is, above all, conformity. It is the uncritical and unquestioning acceptance of America as it is –the political institutions, the social relationships, the economic practices. It rejects inquiry into the race question or socialized medicine, or public housing, or into the wisdom or validity of our foreign policy. It regards as particularly heinous any challenge to what is called ‘the system of private enterprise,’ identifying that system with Americanism. It abandons…the once popular concept of progress, and regards America as a finished product, perfect and complete” (quoted in Foner, 2012, 909).
During this infantile spectacle, “McCarthy never identified a single person guilty of genuine disloyalty” (Foner, 905). Meanwhile, the Russians launched a satellite into space in 1957 that ruptured this anti-intellectual fervor. “Sputnik was more than a shock to American national vanity,” according to Hofstadter. “It brought an immense amount of attention to bear on the consequences of anti-intellectualism in the school system and in American life at large. Suddenly the national distaste for intellect appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival” (1970, 4-5). Now America’s schools were targeted and blamed for not being sufficiently intellectual. Moreover, “the American government knew, through its intelligence agencies, that the Soviet Union…lagged far behind the United States in weaponry, in other scientific accomplishments, and in its standard of living,” according to Urban and Wagoner. “The military establishment used the Soviet ‘threat’ to maintain itself against those who wanted to cut the defense budget” (2012, 329). This manufactured crisis also resulted in increased federal funding in education with the passage of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which specifically provided federal funds for math, science, and foreign language instruction. “Sputnik allowed the advocates of NDEA to tie federal aid to the national defense effort, thereby disarming much of the conservative opposition” to increased education funding, particularly in the South (Urban and Wagoner, 337).
From Manufactured Crisis to a Real Crisis depicting America’s Long-Standing Institutionalized Racism
While this post-war period followed an American precedent of anti-intellectualism and redbaiting, it did witness the abandonment of another; namely, the separate-but-equal doctrine established in the 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. In Plessy, the U.S. Supreme Court circumvented the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, which was intended to give all persons equal rights under the law. The Court strategically interpreted the clause to mean that, as long as segregated public facilities were equal they were constitutional. Subsequently, the Court applied this doctrine to public schooling in its 1899 decision in a case originating from Augusta, Georgia, Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education. The separate-but-equal doctrine continued as constitutionally valid in America until 1954 when the Court unanimously overturned Plessy and ruled segregated schooling unconstitutional and antithetical to the equal protection clause. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision was years in the making. Earlier in the 20th century, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAAP) decided to challenge the separate-but-equal doctrine and its application to higher education. In a strategy that eventually paid off, the NAACP filed several cases wherein highly qualified African American students were denied access to graduate schools solely on the basis of race. Since so few law schools and graduate schools existed for African Americans at the time, students applying for admission to white graduate schools were denied acceptance. With the absence of equal segregated graduate schools throughout the country, the NAACP pressed the U.S. Supreme Court to face up fact that states had failed to create equal (yet separate) graduate schools for African Americans. Therefore, the states were failing to comply with the separate-but-equal doctrine established in Plessy. Compelled to respond to these challenges, the NAACP expected the U.S. Supreme Court to respond effectively in two ways if it were going to remain true to the letter of the law: 1) order states to construct separate graduate schools for African Americans or 2) to require white institutions of higher education to admit African Americans. Understanding the impracticability of states’ building and funding separate institutions for blacks, the Court ruled in favor of challengers and ordered their admission to white institutions. After a number of successful cases, the NAACP laid the jurisprudential framework for finally challenging segregated schooling at the primary and secondary levels.
The NAACP found five plaintiffs representing four different states (Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia to challenge segregated schools. All five cases were heard under the name Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Due to the potential ramifications of overturning Plessy and integrating schoolchildren in the South several justices were initially leery of overturning Plessy for fear of inciting violence and opposition to the Court’s decision. Justices were concerned about the Court’s reputation knowing that its decision might go unenforced. Nevertheless, the lead attorney for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, argued the case by relying on the Court’s previous decisions in higher education and social science evidence provided by Dr. Kenneth Clark who was able to illustrate the psychologically harmful effects of legal segregation on schoolchildren. The Court ruled unanimously to overturn Plessy, and in his majority decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren made the following conclusion:
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…Any language in 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 (347 U.S. 483, 1954).
After ruling segregation unconstitutional, the Court then had to consider a reasonable set of remedies in order to ensure desegregation. In 1955, The Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka II, that desegregation would occur “on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.” As James Ryan has argued, this general and vague language, particularly “its oxymoronic phrase ‘all deliberate speed,’” contributed to chaos and enabled state resistance. “The Court emphasized that [federal] district courts should fashion flexible remedies in order to vindicate ‘the personal interests of plaintiffs in admission to public schools as soon as practicable” (2010, 34). Therefore, responses to desegregation would occur on a district-by-district basis, opening the door to a variety of approaches (as well as varieties of resistance) across southern states. While resistance did occur in each southern state, Ryan provides an excellent case study illustrating the multiple ways in which the state of Virginia circumvented the Court’s ruling for decades including but not limited to choice, voucher, and assignment plans, culminating in “token integration” in order to maintain segregated schooling (see chapter 1, 21-61). The Court’s Brown decisions certainly affected a number of school districts outside the South from Boston to Phoenix, but focus of national attention remained on the old Confederate states where resistance was remained extremely high.
Even President Eisenhower, who was personally displeased with the Brown decision, found himself backed into a corner when Arkansas’ governor, Orval Faubus, demonstrated outright repudiation of the Supreme Court’s orders to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock. Faubus activated his state’s National Guard, ordering it to prevent the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. Knowing that he had a constitutional obligation to enforce the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate, Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock in response to Faubus’s “act of insurrection.” Nevertheless, despite this heightened federal response, White racists continued to badger, harass, and persecute Black students integrated into Central High School. As Urban and Wagoner declared, “The irony revealed in Little Rock…was that while desegregation [was] accomplished in token numbers in the schools, it would be far harder to accomplish meaningful change” when the roots of racism lie outside the schools (2009, 343-344).
When integration did take place, it occurred on white terms. In other words, Adam Fairclough’s history of this period shows that Black students and teachers were systematically disadvantaged. Integration resulted in Black teachers losing their jobs and the closing of their schools. Black students were integrated into White schools and were suddenly being taught by White teachers while being subjected to an all-white curriculum. They attended “schools named after Confederate generals and school mascots called ‘Rebel.’ And they felt deliberately excluded from the prestigious social positions” in those schools. “Black students experienced ‘terrific adjustment problems,’” according to historical records reviewed by Fairclough, and Black students and teachers alike experienced “cultural dissonance that exacerbated student rebelliousness, especially among African American boys.” Furthermore, “despite strong federal involvement, the actual implementation of integration plans and court orders remained largely in the hands of white school boards,” which mollified the widespread resistance to integration (Fairclough, 2007, 396-400.
Due to massive resistance to desegregation, along with the overall impact of Jim Crow laws in the South, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an attempt to force compliance. For instance, Title VI of the act gave the federal government authority to withhold federal funds from institutions that refused to integrate. Following the passage of ESEA, which provided millions of federal dollars to each state, the federal government could now threaten non-compliant states (and school systems) by withholding these large sums of money annually. As the Civil Rights Movement’s boycotts had shown in other venues, when moral authority failed to convince racists to change their views, success might be achieved by taking action to negatively impact profit margins in the business community. The same expectation was used with the federal government’s threats to withhold funds from non-compliant school systems or states that refused to integrate. Combined with the large sums of money provided by ESEA and the enforcement power of Title VI, the federal government exercised extensive control over education policy while lower federal courts exercised oversight. Unfortunately, while positive changes were taking place regarding integration and ending many Jim Crow practices throughout the South, public school systems remain as segregated today as they were before Brown.
Forced Busing Plans
The final, and no less controversial, attempt to integrate schools occurred through the implementation of urban busing plans. Since de facto segregation resulted in separate neighborhoods for Whites and non-Whites, busing was viewed as the only viable way to integrate schools. Many urban school systems began drawing plans to bus white and non-white children to schools across neighborhoods in order to increase racial diversity in all of a district’s schools. Of course, since race (as opposed to class or gender, for example) served as the sole motive behind the existence of segregated schools and Jim Crow laws before Brown, for policy makers working to integrate schools, race logically served as the fundamental basis for busing plans. One of the original attempts to implement a large-scale busing plan was carried out by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina. This plan, which bused students within a countywide school district that included both city schools in Charlotte and surrounding suburban schools, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 as an effective way to desegregate schools. The Court’s decision approving busing as a reasonable remedy to integrate schools was Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. In fact, according to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), “while busing drew a great deal of public attention, critics [of busing] largely overlooked the facts that students were bused for the purpose of desegregation and, indeed, that busing worked –especially in the South where school districts are often countywide and include both central cities and suburbs.” Nevertheless, busing continued to be criticized as part of the overall resistance to integration. According to the LCCHR, “In 1972, President Nixon, partially in fear of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s independent presidential campaign, mounted an attack on busing and asked Congress to ban it. Although President Nixon’s effort failed, the drive for desegregation slowed.” Illustrating a similar response amidst a growing atmosphere of anti-busing sentiment, The U. S. Supreme Court decided in 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, to “effectively halt busing [beyond] a city’s borders. The Court’s divided “decision blocked a city-suburb desegregation plan…that would have involved busing across school district boundaries.” Unlike Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, schools within Detroit existed as separate school districts from their suburban counterparts. Furthermore, according to LCCHR, “ignoring evidence of state governments’ past and continuing involvement in housing and school segregation, the Court [concluded] that “‘local control’” to be “an important tradition in education” that needed to be protected, unless “proof of ‘interdistrict violations,’” could be shown, which “plac[ed] heavy burdens on plaintiffs in future cases” (LCCHR).
Three years later, the Court revisited the Milliken case and “ordered the state of Michigan, along with the Detroit school system, to finance a plan to address the educational deficits faced by African American children.” This subsequent decision was compatible with what has commonly been referred to as President Richard Nixon’s “Compromise,” which represented his opposition to inter-district busing. Namely, Nixon argued that in order to protect suburban schools from busing, inner city schools should simply be given additional funds and resources to compensate urban school children from the harms of past segregation and the legacies of inequitable funding (LCCHR). According to James Ryan, “Nixon’s compromise, broadly conceived to mean that urban schools should be helped in ways that [did] not threaten the physical, financial, or political independence of suburban schools,” which “continues to shape nearly every modern education reform….In other words, save the cities, but spare the suburbs” (2010, 5).
From the perspective of the African American community, it was not necessary for black students to sit next to white students in order to learn; rather, integration was intended to give black children the same resources that white children enjoyed, and the Coleman Report mentioned above illustrated the rational of this view. Nevertheless, offering more money and resources to urban school systems simply diverted any attention away from the root of the problems. Furthermore, the Milliken decision, it has been argued, halted any possibility to integrate schools effectively. In other words, due to the existence of de facto segregation –affluent whites living in separate suburban school districts and poorer non-whites living in separate inner city school districts –there is no significant way to integrate students unless they cross-district boundaries. Without the ability to utilize inter-district busing, the transfer of students within school districts often and merely results in little integration. James Ryan has made the following conclusions that are worth quoting at length:
Suburban participation [in inter-district busing]…held out the promise of more equitable funding. If districts were consolidated, funding would be more equitable because suburbanites would be required to share their property tax revenues with urban schools. Even if districts were not consolidated but buses crossed district lines, suburbanites would still have an incentive to spend money on urban schools because students from the suburbs would be attending them. In effect, interdistrict integration would be a way to tie the fate of urban and suburban students together, much in the same way that the Brown lawyers had hoped desegregation would tie the fate of white and black students together.
Under an interdistrict integration plan, enrollment in metropolitan schools might also stabilize because there would be fewer places for whites to flee. Most jobs remained in city centers, and most housing opportunities remained either in the cities or in nearby suburbs. Whites looking to avoid a metropolitan-wide desegregation decree would have to move far away from employment and choose among limited housing stock. Private schools were an option, obviously, but there were not enough to absorb more than a small fraction of white students. Not all parents, moreover, could afford both private school tuition and property taxes. The impetus to flee to a private school, or to a far-flung suburb, would also be reduced because public schools under a metropolitan-wide desegregation decree would remain predominantly white (2010, 71).
While critics of integration and busing often referred to these remedies as “social engineering,” had it not been for opposition to inter-district busing, the successes of school integration in places like Charlotte-Mecklenburg County could have been tested in other cities. However, widespread resistance to integration has developed in multiple ways, making it virtually impossible to actualize the intentions of Brown. In other words, there are multiple points at which resistance can and did occur. Horizontally across federal institutions, court decisions and judicial oversight have shown to be generally inadequate in carrying out the Supreme Court’s mandates in Brown I and II, and executive opposition to or presidential compromises made for the purposes of weakening integration efforts have been pursued. Vertically, state legislatures, state agencies, and local governments, including schoolboards, have circumvented efforts to integrate schools, all of which has made the promises of Brown go largely unfulfilled. This failure has illustrated the difficulty in trying to remedy the effects of racism when that racism is deeply embedded in a society’s culture and in its cultural, social, economic, and political institutions.
The Contemporary Court’s Response to Brown in its Seattle and Louisville Cases
Jumping ahead to the twenty first century, the Supreme Court has added another wrinkle to its review of busing plans that are, we may recall, intended to integrate schoolchildren who find themselves segregated racially as a result of historical de jure and de facto segregation. In a set of cases from Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky, the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that busing plans that are intended to achieve diversity could not be drawn solely based on race. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts declared pointedly and somewhat perplexingly that, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” To understand this comment, it is important to point out that, with regard to the Louisville case, the plaintiff, Ms. Meredith, filed suit as a result of her son, who is white, being denied admission to a public school that had reached its threshold of white students. Like many busing plans, the Seattle and Louisville plans bused children across schools based on percentages of white and non-white students in order to achieve greater racial diversity. Chief Justice Roberts, speaking for the Court’s majority, concluded in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, that Ms. Meredith’s circumstances reflected a form of racism because her son was denied admission to a school solely on the fact that he was white. Therefore, the contemporary majority on the Court more or less inverted the rationales that had been used in previous desegregation cases and concluded that denying any student admission solely on the basis of his or her race, whatever that race may be, is unconstitutional. Yet, the Court’s decision also held that race can be considered in busing plans, but only if other demographic variables are also used including, but not limited to, socioeconomic status, “personal adversity,” and “family hardship.” In other words, the majority argued that focusing on race was too exclusive and that “all factors that contribute to student body diversity” should also be considered.
What Was Learned: How the Civil Rights Movement was Nationally Educative
Despite falling short on some of its goals, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s provided America with another example of the power of grass-roots action that resulted in a number of positive changes. It also provided hope to a number of other oppressed groups who learned a great deal from witnessing it. In other words, the African American Civil Rights Movement gave hope to Mexican and Asian Americans, as well as women, people with disabilities, and to a lesser extent, Native Americans. These groups also advocated for civil rights, access to (and greater control over) education, and equal rights. Like African Americans, Mexican Americans utilized the courts to overturn segregated schools in the southwest, particularly in Texas and California. In fact, the earliest segregation case was filed by Mexican Americans in 1931 in Lemon Grove, California, which resulted in a positive decision by the local state court. Other cases would be filed elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s.
A group of Asian Americans was successful in pursuing bilingual education in Lau v. Nichols, which transpired from a class action suit filed in San Francisco, California that affected approximately 1,800 students. Parents of non-English-speaking Chinese students alleged that their Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection rights had been violated since they could neither understand nor speak English. San Francisco schools were taught in only English, which caused Chinese parents to question the value of public schooling if their children could not understand what was being taught. The question at hand related to whether or not a public school system must accommodate children who do not speak English. The United States Supreme Court provided its answer to this question in 1974 when it concluded that, despite the inapplicability of the equal protection clause in this case, the school district violated Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “which bans discrimination based ‘on race, color, or national origin’ in ‘any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.’” The school district involved in this case certainly received federal funds based on the evidence and testimony from the lower court. Furthermore, based on guidelines developed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, “‘[s]chool systems are responsible for assuring that students of a particular race, color, or national origin are not denied the opportunity to obtain the education generally obtained by other students in the system,’” according to the Court. Once a public school received federal funds, they are required “to rectify the language deficiency in order to” make instruction relevant to “students” who are unable “to speak and understand the English language.” Two of the justices pointed out that the significant number of students affected in this case helped to substantiate their decision. In other words, they acknowledge the inherent difficulty a school system faces when attempting to accommodate a single student’s language deficiencies or only a few students’ who all speak separate languages. Therefore, the Court indirectly concluded that similar cases require the Court’s consideration of reasonableness based on contextual considerations to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, school systems were expected to make reasonable accommodations for language learners to the extent possible (Lau v. Nichols). This decision did not mandate a particular form of language instruction. Doing so would require micromanagement of schools by the federal courts. Nevertheless, schools were required to respond to the needs of English language learners effectively, whether this mean implementing bilingual education, English immersion, or some other method of instruction. In order to ensure that public school instruction be meaningful and effective for all children, it was necessary the Court believed, to remedy a situation where large numbers of school children in the U.S. were attending schools but could not understand what was being taught. A continuance of this situation would simply perpetuate unequal opportunity for children, something schools were expected to overcome. The Court concluded in Lau that, “There is no equality of treatment by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum, for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.”
A 1972 class action suit was filed in Pennsylvania representing children with disabilities who had been denied access to the public schools in that state. Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was settled in court by a consent decree wherein the state of Pennsylvania agreed to provide free education to children with disabilities. Not only did this case result in guaranteeing the rights of disabled children to attend public schools, it also laid the groundwork for reasonable accommodations to be made for children with disabilities in least restrictive environments, and that individualized education plans be used in order to accommodate students’ unique learning needs. Congress followed up in 1973 by enacting the Rehabilitation Act, which guaranteed civil rights for people with disabilities , which required appropriate accommodations and individualized education plans to tailor education for students based on their unique needs. Providing children with disabilities in least restrictive settings was implemented in the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act.
Women continued to fight for equal pay and respect in the workplace, and some success was achieved in the passage of Title IX as one of the amendments to the 1972 Higher Education Act. According to its Overview, the U. S. Department of Justice explains, “Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” In addition, “The principal objective of Title IX is to…provide individual citizens effective protection against…discrimination.” Title IX applies to “colleges, universities, and elementary and secondary schools,” as well as to any education or training program operated by a receipt of federal financial assistance.” Likewise, Title IX applies to intercollegiate athletic activities, and it resulted in increasing the number of female administrators in public educational institutions.
Native Americans were able to enjoy greater control in limited ways over reservation schools including, but not limited to, the Rough Rock Demonstration School (recently renamed Rough Rock Community School, located in northeastern Arizona. According to Joel Spring, this school was opened in 1966 as “a joint effort of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” The creation of this school was intended to give “Navajo parents…control” over “the education of their children” and to “participate in all aspects of their schooling.” Moreover, these efforts served as an “attempt to preserve the Navajo language and culture,” which was “in contrast to the deculturalization efforts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (2008, 394). According to John Collier, Jr., who observed the Rough Rock Demonstration School in its earlier years, “A Navajo way of education appears in total contradiction to formal white learning.” Specifically, “Navajos do not teach their children, but they “incorporate them in every life task, so that children learn themselves, by keen observation.” Said differently, “Navajo learning involves no teachers,” according to Collier. Nevertheless, according to the Navajo Tribal Educational Policies, developed in 1985, “The ultimate goal of the Navajo Nation is self-determination,” and the Rough Rock curriculum was “based on the needs of the students served.” Their “culture, values, and individual interests” were to “be recognized and integrated into all curricula.” Furthermore, “The survival of the Navajo Nation as a unique group of people…requires [them] to retain and/or develop an understanding, knowledge, and respect for Navajo culture, history, civics, and social studies,” which was determined by “the local school governing board, in consultation with parents, students, and the local community” (1988, 262, 268). Despite the fact that the history of federal and Native Indian relations consisted in genocide, relocation, dispossession, and controlled boarding school experiments, Rough Rock Demonstration School continues to provide an example of Navajo empowerment and a locally developed form of Native cultural redemption.
The 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act
In addition to Nixon’s “Compromise” on school busing, he signed into law congressional legislation known as the 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act. This act paralleled Nixon’s recent focus on equal educational opportunities (as opposed to after-the-fact remedies like busing, which was highly controversial). On the heels of the Lau decision, this legislation embodied the rights of all children to have equal educational opportunities, and it included particular consideration to students with limited English proficiency (LEP). The EEOA’s applicable breadth is exemplified the law’s intent, which prohibits states from denying equal educational opportunity on account of race, color, sex, or national origin. Moreover, the EEOA prohibits states from denying equal educational opportunity by the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.
Due to the number of court cases following WWII, the following have been organized in the table below.
Mendez v. Westminister School District of Orange County
|Equal Protection Clause: Segregation of Mexican American children|
|Sweatt v. Painter
|Equal Protection Clause: Segregation in higher education|
|Brown v. Board of Education
|Equal Protection Clause: Segregation in public schools|
|Brown v. Board of Education II
|Equal Protection Clause: Desegregation of public schools|
|Engel v. Vitale
|Establishment Clause: Teacher-led prayers in public schools|
|Abington School District v. Schempp
|Establishment Clause: Required Bible reading in public schools|
|Keyishian v. Board of Regents of New York
|Freedom to Associate: Teacher rights|
|Epperson v. Arkansas
|Establishment Clause: State laws that prohibit teaching evolution|
|Pickering v. Board of Education
|Free Speech: Teacher rights|
|Tinker v. Des Moines
|Free Speech: Student rights|
PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
|Equal Protection Clause: Rights of disabled children to attend public schools|
Serrano v. Priest
|Equal Protection Clause: Inequitable school district funding|
|Wisconsin v. Yoder
|Freedom to Worship: Exception to compulsory schooling for the Amish|
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez
|Equal Protection Clause: Inequitable school district funding|
|Lau v. Nichols
|Equal Protection Clause: Accommodations for non-English speaking students|
|Milliken v. Bradley
|Desegregation of intra-district busing plans|
Oliver v. Michigan State Board of Education
|Intentional or outcome-based segregation|
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
|Equal Protection Clause: University admission policies|
Case information courtesy of Justia, LexisNexis Academia, and Oyez.org
Questions to Consider
- What explanations can be given to explain the growth of federal involvement in education and public schooling? How do issues related to public schooling end up on the federal policy agenda?
- How did public policies contribute to the creation of the “ghetto” in urban areas and perpetuate poverty and inequality?
- Why was the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 included in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty?
- Why was Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt a façade? What was he really trying to do?
- How were school effected by McCarthy’s pursuits?
- Why did the launching of the Soviet Satellite redirect America’s attention away from McCarthyism?
- How did the Supreme Court institutionalize racism in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision?
- Following Plessy, the Court ruled in 1899 that the separate-but-equal doctrine applied to schools in Cumming v. Richmond County School Board. How did the Court maneuver this conclusion from the facts of this case?
- After reading the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board, explain what convinced them to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson.
- After watching the film, Simple Justice, explain why Felix Frankfurter was hesitant to overturn Plessy.
- How did Kenneth Clark’s doll experiment provide support for overturning Plessy?
- What are your thoughts about the strategies used to resist desegregation following the Brown decisions? Can you make any parallels today?
- What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court’s decisions related to school busing in Swann, Milliken, and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District cases?
- How did the Mendez and Lau cases parallel Brown v. Board?
- What was the significance of Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act? Has this legislation been successful in creating gender equality?
- How successful has the Brown decision been in integrating public schools in the twenty first century?
Collier, John Jr. (1988). Survival at Rough Rock: A Historical Overview of Rough Rock Demonstration School. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 19, no. 3, pp. 253-269. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3195833
Fairclough, Adam. (2007). A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Foner, Eric. (2012). Give Me Liberty! An American History. Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Hofstadter, Richard. (1970). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Ravitch, Diane. (1983). The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980. United States: Basic Books.
Ryan, James E. (2010). Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Spring, Joel. (2008). The American School: A Global Context from the Puritans to the Obama Era. Eighth Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. School Desegregation and Equal Educational Opportunity.
Zimmerman, Jonathan. (2002). Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
External Readings & Resources
Hofstadter, Richard. (1970). Anti-intellectualism in Our Time. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Moody, Anne. (1992). Coming of Age in Mississippi. New York: Dell Publishing.
Ravitch, Diane. (1985). Postwar Initiatives. In The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Ryan, James E. (2010). Buying Time. In Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zimmerman, Jonathan. (2005). The Cold War Assault on Textbooks. In Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Originally produced by WGBH for PBS’s American Experience and based on Richard Kluger’s book of the same name, this film provides an excellent overview of the NAACP’s legal strategy to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson leading up to the culmination of Brown v. Board of Topeka. This strategy included filing a number of court cases testing the notion of “equal” in the separate-but-equal doctrine established in Plessy in 1896. After succeeding and laying the groundwork in higher education, the NAACP’s work to overturn segregated schooling in primary and secondary education is shown including, but not limited to, Dr. Kenneth Clark’s doll experiment, oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court, and negotiations among the justices as they considered overturning Plessy and desegregating public schools in the South. The film was produced in the United States and directed by Helaine Head. Length: ~2 hrs.
The third in a four-part disc series produced by Stone Lantern Films for PBS, this film provides a nice overview of post-World War II changes in education including the Brown v. Board of Education case, information about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act, and the American with Disabilities Act. The film was produced in the United States and directed by Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton. The film is narrated by Meryl Streep. Length: 55 min.
This film focuses on the segregation of Mexican American children and the 1947 landmark Supreme Court decision, Mendez v. Westminister. Like African Americans in the South, Mexican Americans were subjected to decades of discrimination, which included segregated schooling. This film shows the efforts taken to end segregated schooling in a case filed in Orange County, California. Seven years before the Brown case was heard, Mexican Americans were also working to achieve equal schooling. This film was produced and directed by Sandra Robbie in the United States. Length: 30 min.
This film focuses on a school board’s attempt to segregate Mexican American children’s school in Lemon Grove, California. The earliest school desegregation case ever filed in the United States, Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, resulted in a 1931 state court decision in favor of the plaintiffs wherein the court ruled that there was no legal basis to segregate Mexican American children in the state of California. California law did not permit segregated schooling, according to the Court, and the children were entitled to attend the regular school for all other children in the Lemon Grove school district. This film was produced by Paul Espinosa and directed by Frank Christopher. It was released in 1985 and funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Length: 58 min.
Baugh, Joyce A. (2011). The Detroit Busing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy over Desegregation. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Ginger, Ann Fagan. (2006). Landmark Cases Left Out of Your Textbooks. Berkeley, CA: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1990). I have a Dream / Also a Letter from Birmingham Jail. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning.
LaNier, Carlotta Walls and Page, Lisa Frazier. (2010). A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock High School. New York: Random House.
Levine, Ellen S. (2000). Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories. New York: Puffin Books.
MacLean, Nancy. (2008). The American Women’s Movement, 1945-2000: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s Press.
McCarty, Teresa L. (2002). A Place to Be Navajo: Rough Rock and the Struggle for Self-Determination in Indigenous Schooling. New York: Routledge.
McPherson, Stephanie S. (2000). Lau v. Nichols: Bilingual Education in Public Schools. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers.
Morrison, Toni. (2004). Remember: The Journey to School Integration. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
San Miguel, Guadalupe, Jr. (2000). Let All of them Take Heed: Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas, 1910-1981. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University.
Strum, Philippa. (2010). Mendez v. Westminister: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Takaki, Ronald. (2000). Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II. New York: Back Bay Books.
X, Malcolm. (1992). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group.