On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling by the District Court of Kansas and case law that stretched back to 1896.
Plessy v Ferguson, that 1896 ruling, held that as long as facilities were equal, in that case, railroad cars, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law, was not being violated.
Brown v Board of Education, a decision under Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that the segregation of students in public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because separate facilities are inherently unequal.
At the time, there were 17 states that required racial segregation and 16 states that prohibited it. The rest of the, then 48, states either called segregation optional or had no laws either way.
Kansas had passed a law in 1879 allowing school districts to be segregated.
African American parents challenged this law in a 1951 class-action lawsuit.
The Topeka, Kansas Board of Education, in its defense, used the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision as precedent to support their position.
The Kansas District Court agreed, claiming the facilities were essentially equal in buildings, teachers and curriculum, even though they admitted separation was not good for the African American students.
Their decision gave the Topeka School Board permission not to change the racial segregation policy.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took the case to the Supreme Court, combining the Kansas case with four others, from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
In the Delaware case, the District Court had ordered that African American students be admitted to the white school because facilities were not equal.
The Supreme Court decision overturning racial segregation in public schools was unanimous, holding that even if the facilities were equal, segregation was harmful, and therefore, unconstitutional.
They based their decision partly on research from an African American professor and psychologist, Kenneth Clark, and Civil Rights activist and first-generation Russian immigrant, June Alexander, that pointed to social and psychological disadvantages borne by African American students who are segregated, even in equal facilities.
Clark and Alexander’s research also indicated that gradual desegregation had no advantages over moving quickly.
Topeka’s high schools had been integrated since 1949 and its middle schools since 1941.
After the Supreme Court decision, they peacefully integrated their elementary schools between 1953 and 1956.
Virginia, however, did not accept the decision.
They started a campaign called Massive Resistance, led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. and closed schools so they would not have to desegregate, skirting the law by granting tuition for private academies to white students.
In 1958, the state closed nine schools in four counties rather than integrate them.
One county’s public schools were closed for six years.
Arlington, Virginia’s local school board allowed desegregation of a junior high school in 1959, after a court ruled in favor of several African American parents who had sued to force them to obey the Supreme Court’s order.
They were the first school in the state to be integrated.
The state immediately disbanded the school board, not returning local control until 1992.
Click here to order a copy of The First Century: And Not Ready for the Rocking Chair Yet, in which retired school teacher Martha Ann Miller describes her front-row seat at the integration of that Arlington junior high school.
The Supreme Court ordered Virginia to desegregate all its public schools in 1964.
In 1959, I moved from a state where segregation was forbidden, Iowa, to one where it was required, Texas.
As a practical matter, there were few African Americans in Iowa, so I never knew any in elementary school or in my neighborhood.
But, in Texas, a few years before we moved, I had spotted segregated public restrooms.
They were labeled with the degrading signs on three bathrooms: Men, Women, and Colored.
In 1963, Texas decided to start integrating its schools by starting with first grade.
They planned to add one year each year until, 12 years later, all grade levels would be integrated, hoping to avoid the violence school districts in Tennessee, Mississippi and Massachusetts had experienced.
They completed the process in 1969, spurred by an effort to integrate high school sports.
When did your schools integrate?
What was the process?
How did it affect you?
To you and the diversity of the world at your grandchildren’s doorstep.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru