School Desegregation


integration, in U.S. history, the goal of an organized movement to break down the barriers of discrimination and segregation separating African Americans from the rest of American society. Racial segregation was peculiar neither to the American South nor to the United States (see apartheid).

Reconstruction to 1954

Segregation assumed its special form in the United States after the Southern states were defeated in the Civil War and slavery was abolished. Black codes that restricted the rights of the newly freed slaves were enacted in the South in 1865–66. These were abolished during Reconstruction, but after Reconstruction white dominance was thoroughly reestablished in the South, partly by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups, but more by the persistence of social custom.

African Americans were prevented from voting by devices such as the poll tax and unfair literacy tests and by intimidation. They were denied any equal share in community life. Toward the end of the 19th cent. segregation laws—the Jim Crow laws—were enacted to codify white dominance. Blacks were forced to attend separate schools and colleges, to occupy special sections in railway cars and buses, and to use separate public facilities; they were forbidden to sit with whites in most places of public amusement. These laws were upheld as regards railroad facilities by the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the so-called separate but equal accommodation. The period 1900 to 1920 brought full extension of segregation to all public transportation and education facilities, even hospitals, churches, and jails.

The tide of opposition across the nation began to rise just before World War II and was given impetus by the activities of civil-rights organizations. African Americans, enjoying a somewhat improved economic status, were in the 1930s more assertive of their rights. General opinion may have been influenced by the paradox of a nation urging war for democracy overseas while at the same time tolerating discrimination at home.

In 1948, President Harry Truman issued a directive calling for an end to segregation in the armed forces. The Supreme Court had also begun to move away from the earlier opinions and toward a principle of racial equality. The court struck down state enforcement of restrictive covenants as well as racial barriers leading to unequal treatment in state professional schools and in interstate transportation. In these rulings, however, the court still ruled only on whether facilities provided for blacks and whites were equal, and not on whether the separation of the races itself was unconstitutional.

1954 to 1963

School Desegregation

In 1954, the Supreme Court took a momentous step: In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. the court set aside a Kansas statute permitting cities of more than 15,000 to maintain separate schools for blacks and whites and ruled instead that all segregation in public schools is "inherently unequal" and that all blacks barred from attending public schools with white pupils are denied equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The doctrine was extended to state-supported colleges and universities in 1956. Meanwhile, in 1955 the court implemented its 1954 opinion by declaring that the federal district courts would have jurisdiction over lawsuits to enforce the desegregation decision and asked that desegregation proceed "with all deliberate speed."

At the time of the 1954 decision, laws in 17 southern and border states (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri) and the District of Columbia required that elementary schools be segregated. Four other states—Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming—had laws permitting segregated schools, but Wyoming had never exercised the option, and the problem was not important in the other three. Although discrimination existed in the other states of the Union, it was not sanctioned by law.

The struggle over desegregation now centered upon the school question. By the end of 1957 nine of the 17 states and the District of Columbia had begun integration of their school systems. Another five states had some integrated schools by 1961. The states mostly fell back on stopgap measures or on pupil-placement laws, which assigned students to schools ostensibly on nonracial grounds. Forced integration led to much violence. The most notable instance was the defiance in 1957 of federal orders by Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent integration in Little Rock. President Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to enforce the court order for integration.

In 1958 Virginia closed nine schools in four counties rather than have them integrated, but Virginia and federal courts ruled these moves illegal. In 1960 desegregation began in Louisiana; whites boycotted the integrated New Orleans public schools at first triumphantly, later with diminishing effectiveness. In 1961 two black students registered at the Univ. of Georgia but were suspended because of student disorders; they were later returned under a federal judge's order.

In 1962–63 violence erupted in Mississippi, precipitating a serious crisis in federal-state relations. Against the opposition of Gov. Ross R. Barnett, James H. Meredith, a black who was supported by federal court orders, registered at the Univ. of Mississippi in 1962. A mob gathered and attacked the force of several hundred federal marshals assigned to protect Meredith; two persons were killed. The next day federal troops occupied Oxford and restored order. Meredith became the first African American to attend a Mississippi public school with white students in accord with the 1954 court decision.

In 1963, South Carolina's Clemson College became the first integrated public school in that state. Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama stood in a doorway at the Univ. of Alabama in a symbolic attempt to block two black students from enrolling in 1963; the attempt failed. In the North attempts were also made to combat segregation. After a suit brought by black parents in 1960, the school system of New Rochelle, N.Y., was in 1961 ordered by a federal judge to be desegregated. Similar suits followed in other cities.

Public Transportation and Accommodations

The fight over education overshadowed efforts to achieve integration in other areas, but moves against segregation in public transportation did gain wide notice. In 1955–56, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led blacks in Montgomery, Ala., in a boycott against the municipal bus system after Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the segregated section of a bus. The boycott was brought to a successful conclusion when, on Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court nullified the laws of Alabama and the ordinances of Montgomery that required segregation on buses.

Mixed groups of whites and blacks, called Freedom Riders, in May, 1961, undertook a campaign to force integration in bus terminals and challenge segregation in local interstate travel facilities. The buses were attacked by mobs in Anniston, Ala., where one bus was destroyed by a firebomb. There were riots in Birmingham and Montgomery when blacks attempted to use facilities previously reserved for whites; federal marshals and the National Guard were called out to restore order and escort the Freedom Riders to Mississippi. Many of them were arrested in Jackson, Miss., for infractions of the state's segregation laws, and a long series of court battles began. These protests led in 1961 to an Interstate Commerce Commission ban on segregation in all interstate transportation facilities.

Other Fields

Passive resistance was undertaken by groups to eradicate discrimination in other fields. In 1960 black college students staged a sit-in at segregated public lunch counters in an effort to force desegregation; similar demonstrations were made in other cities. Other campaigns were waged with some success for the desegregation of beaches, restaurants, theaters, and libraries. In 1957, New York City adopted the first law forbidding racial or religious discrimination in private rental housing. During the summer of 1963 thousands of blacks demonstrated in Birmingham, Ala., and were attacked by police using cattle prods and dogs. Nationwide revulsion to these attacks was expressed when over 200,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., and pressed for further civil-rights legislation.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Present

An attempt to deal with the increasing demands of blacks for equal rights came in 1964 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson asked for and received the most comprehensive civil-rights act to date; the act specifically prohibited discrimination in voting, education, and the use of public facilities. For the first time since the Supreme Court ruled on segregation in public schools in 1954, the federal government had a means of enforcing desegregation; Title VI of the act barred the use of federal funds for segregated programs and schools. In 1964 only two southern states (Tennessee and Texas) had more than 2% of their black students enrolled in integrated schools. Because of Title VI, about 6% of the black students in the South were in integrated schools by the next year.

Early in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, but it did not prevent the rising tide of militance among blacks; Watts, a black slum in Los Angeles, erupted in violence, leaving 34 dead. The next year was marked by riots in practically all major U.S. cities as blacks began shifting to an independent course expressed in the concept of black power; the term originated with Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization that dropped whites from membership the following year.

Meanwhile, integration of southern school districts was progressing; by 1967, 22% of the black students in the 17 southern and border states were in integrated schools. However, the continuing separation of blacks and whites in most areas was emphasized in 1968 when the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) issued a report that said, "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that summer set off riots in 125 U.S. cities. The issue of segregated housing was faced in the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which contained a clause barring discrimination against blacks in the sale or rental of most housing.

Although integration proponents received a setback in 1970 when President Nixon announced that the desegregation of schools would be left to the courts and that his administration would de-emphasize strong desegregation procedures, real successes had already been achieved. Black college students were enrolling in previously white colleges at a greater rate; in 1964, 51% of black students had been in predominantly black colleges, but by 1971 only 34% were. At the secondary and primary levels the South had begun to move ahead of the North, despite a system of tax-exempt, segregated private schools that had been developing in the South since the 1960s. By the fall of 1972, 44% of the black students in the South were in predominantly white schools, while only 30% were in predominantly white schools in the North.

The early 1970s were characterized by the controversial issue of busing as a tool to promote integration. The Supreme Court continued, in the early 1970s, to back busing plans. By 1974, however, a more conservative court had moderated its position, allowing in Miliken v. Bradley (1974) the predominantly white Detroit suburbs to be excluded from a desegregation plan. By the mid-1970s, however, only about 12% of black students in the United States remained in completely segregated schools; the number of students still in such schools remains very low. Nonetheless, in the late 1990s about one third of all black students were in schools that were 90% nonwhite. Moreover, studies showed that from the mid-1980s through the 1990s American classrooms in grades K to 12 had become increasingly segregated, a trend linked to court decisions limiting and reversing desegregation as well as to a decline in federal support for desegregation and to enduring de facto segregation in housing. Nonetheless, in 2007 a significantly more conservative Supreme Court ruled that the degree to which school districts could use race in order to avoid resegregation was limited.

Affirmative action, which seeks to overcome the effects of segregation and other forms of past discrimination by allocating jobs and resources to African Americans and other affected groups, began in the 1960s. The use of racial quotas as part of affirmative action, however, led to charges of reverse discrimination in the late 1970s. In the 1980s the federal government's role in affirmative action was considerably diluted, and in 1989 the Supreme Court gave greater standing to claims of reverse discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 reaffirmed a government commitment to affirmative action, but Supreme Court decisions have placed limits on the use of race in awarding government contracts and in achieving educational diversity. In the late 1990s, California and other states banned the use of race- and sex-based preferences.

The various civil-rights acts and the diminishment of prejudice produced changes in the political arena; African Americans became increasingly elected to public office. In 1966, Edward Brooke became the first African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and, in 1967, Carl Stokes became the first African American to be elected mayor of a major American city (Cleveland). Many major cities, among them New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, have since elected black mayors. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first black to contend seriously for that office. Douglas Wilder became first African American to be elected governor of a state in 1989. Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff and serve as secretary of state, was the popular choice of many Republicans for the 1996 presidential nomination, although he declined to run. A little more than a decade later, Illinois senator Barack Obama became (2008) the first black major party candidate for the nation's highest office. The son of a white American mother and a Kenyan father, he was nominated by the Democratic party and won the election.

Although a number of blacks have achieved real prominence in business, education, government, and other fields, and many more have achieved solid, though less stunning successes as a result of integration, race remains one of the most intractable problems in the United States, in large part because personal biases and racial stereotyping (by and of all races) cannot be altered by legislation or lawsuits. This lingering prejudice fosters interracial tension and other social problems that are often ignored by the larger society unless a public outcry or worse results, as in New Jersey in the late 1990s when public controversy erupted over the use of racial profiling by the state police. Even in the last decade of the 20th cent. and the first years of the 21st, race riots have occurred; the most violent was in Los Angeles following the acquittal (1992) of the police officers accused of brutality in the Rodney King case.


See M. R. Konvitz, A Century of Civil Rights (1961, repr. 1967); R. L. Green, Racial Crisis in American Education (1969); R. Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (1976); G. Orfield, Public School Desegregation in the United States, 1968–80 (1983); D. G. Nieman, Promises to Keep: African Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to Present (1991); J. T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (2001); C. Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001); P. Irons, Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision (2002); C. V. Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (4th rev. ed. 2002); C. Carter et al., ed., Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973 (2 vol., 2003).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Not So Strange Path of Desegregation in America's Public Schools
Daniel, Philip T. K.
Negro Educational Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, January 2005
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States' Rights
Frank Lambert.
Oxford University Press, 2010
Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation
Stephen J. Caldas; Carl L. Bankston.
Praeger, 2005
The Impact of the Desegregation Process on the Education of Black Students: A Retrospective Analysis
Irvine, Jacqueline Jordan; Irvine, Russell W.
The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 76, No. 3, Summer 2007
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
School Desegregation in the 21st Century
Christine H. Rossell; David J. Armor; Herbert J. Walberg.
Praeger, 2002
Is Desegregation Dead? Parsing the Relationship between Achievement and Demographics
Eaton, Susan; Rivkin, Steven.
Education Next, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall 2010
After Grutter V. Bollinger - Revisiting the Desegregation Era from the Perspective of the Post-Desegregation Era
Brown, Kevin D.
Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 2004
The NAACP's Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950
Mark V. Tushnet.
University of North Carolina Press, 1987
The Administration of Court-Ordered School Desegregation in Urban School Districts: The Law and Experience
Hunter, Richard C.
The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 73, No. 3, Summer 2004
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Desegregation of Higher Education, Race Conscious Admissions Policies and the Federal Constitution: Before Brown vs. Board and Beyond
Lark, Taj'ullah Sky.
Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 5, No. 5, June 30, 2012
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Accountability and Desegregation: Brown and Its Legacy
Daniel, Philip T. K.
The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 73, No. 3, Summer 2004
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Historical Dictionary of School Segregation and Desegregation: The American Experience
Jeffrey A. Raffel.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Little Rock: Race and Resistance at Central High School
Karen Anderson.
Princeton University Press, 2010
Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston
William Henry Kellar.
Texas A&M University Press, 1999
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator