The school desegregation battle passed relatively quickly, Mr. white points out--but the scars of the efforts to forestall desegregation are far more lasting and can still be seen today.
ALTHOUGH THE conventional view of Oliver Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al., decided by the United States Supreme Court 40 years ago last May, is that the ruling came as a bolt from the blue, only the extent of the decree actually came as a surprise to most of those who were charged with the planning and leadership of southern cities. There is now compelling evidence to suggest that the 1954 Brown decision and its enforcement decree a year later were merely the keystone events in a decade-long effort to replace the South's elaborate system of legal (de jure) segregation with the type of de facto segregation found in northern, western, and midwestern cities as a result of well-defined racial barriers between neighborhoods.
That there would be some sort of decision from the Court overruling at least a portion of the South's elaborate system of segregated education was a foregone conclusion among many southern leaders; clearly, the "separate but equal" facilities maintained by communities, particularly those in rural areas, were so far from equivalent that only the most callous Court could disregard the distinction. Moreover, the nation was already desegregating its facilities for the military, for interstate transportation, for public accommodation, and for recreation -- either through administrative action or through legal intervention -- and it was hard to imagine that a country that had so recently committed itself to fighting oppressors overseas would allow its own public schools to remain bastions of racial subjugation at home.
It now appears that the individuals charged with the leadership and management of southern cities had ample time, opportunity, and motivation to prepare for the legally mandated demise of segregated schools and facilities in their communities; that they started making plans in anticipation of such a ruling long before the Brown case was ever decided; and that their preparations grew increasingly intense as the prospect of court-ordered integration became more and more real. Furthermore, it seems that these leiders took deliberate steps to use all the powers at their disposal -- both direct (those related to the control of school construction, educational administration, and student attendance) and indirect (those that fall under the headings of redevelopment, city planning, the enforcement of codes, and urban renewal) -- to forestall court-ordered school desegregation in the South. The impact of their preemptive actions has been almost as profound as the Brown decision itself and can still be seen today in carefully contrived boundaries of school zones and neighborhoods, mid-sized and misplaced school buildings, demolished housing, redeveloped properties, and inappropriate use of municipal land.
Thus, although the decade of the 1950s was a time in which a carefully planned and executed legal assault on school desegregation finally bore fruit, it was also the era in which the impact of the High Court's ruling was largely minimized and even negated in many communities by an equally well-planned and quietly orchestrated underground resistance. Unfortunately, the traditional histories of this decade have focused almost entirely on the shouting match that was going on in the streets and in the legislative corridors and have largely ignored the far more consequential planning sessions that were taking place in the back rooms of city halls across the South.
A Shifting Population
Even without the school desegregation controversy, the 1950s would have been a challenging enough time for school boards and municipal leaders in the urban South. The mass migration of blacks from the rural South had originally been directed toward the northern cities, but after World War II it shifted destinations to include the major southern urban centers. Most of the older cities of the South did not have a central ghetto or black district, as did their northern counterparts; instead, almost every white middle-class neighborhood had a small concentration of blacks living nearby, from which it drew its domestic workers. Since both the housing and the schools were strictly segregated, in accordance with state laws, the burden of maintaining separate-race schools was borne almost exclusively by black children, who had to be bused across town to achieve racially separate schools. This was exactly the situation outlawed in the Brown case--Linda Brown was being bused past the white schools in Topeka, Kansas--and it was the circumstance most directly under attack from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The changing pattern of black migration was not, however, the only force defining the need for municipal planning and redevelopment activities. The military build-up that had taken place during World War II continued through the Korean conflict and on into the Cold War era, placing enormous pressures on Sunbelt cities to plan for the influx of people and industries. Veterans returning from the war and their "baby boom" offspring began to create their own demands for more housing, schools, shopping centers, and public services. In short, the 1950s saw shifts in population, housing, and land use, especially in the urban South, and it was here that the tools of redevelopment, land use planning, school planning, and urban renewal really came of age.
Attempting to overturn centuries of discrimination, prejudice, tradition, and both statutory and unwritten codes of behavior was also a lengthy process. In the 1930s the NAACP -- under the leadership of Charles Houston, dean of the Law School at Howard University, and Thurgood Marshall, his young protege who was later to serve as a Supreme Court justice -- launched a withering legal attack on the peculiar logic that provided the basis for maintaining segregated schools. Although the NAACP's assault was at first aimed at discrimination in graduate education, the intent was clearly to amass an irrefutable body of precedent that would lead to a decision striking down once and for all the notion that separate schools could be equal in American society.
In the major first victory, Gaines v. Missouri (1938), the Supreme Court struck down the argument that a government could avoid the responsibility of operating a school for blacks (in this case, a law school) when it preserved one exclusively for whites.6 Even though Missouri helped to send its black law students to schools in other states, the logic of the NAACP was convincing to the nine lawyers who served as justices on the Court: they understood that there were certain powerful advantages associated with attending a law school in the state in which one intended to practice. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950), the Court decided that the makeshift law school provided for blacks by the state of Texas to avoid the Gaines …