Brown Revisited

By White, Forrest R. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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Brown Revisited

White, Forrest R., Phi Delta Kappan

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,[1] 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.

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