A History of Black Achievement as Impacted by Federal Court Decisions in the Last Century

By Gooden, Mark A. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

A History of Black Achievement as Impacted by Federal Court Decisions in the Last Century


Gooden, Mark A., The Journal of Negro Education


Historically in America, Black people have experienced dubious victories in the legal system with regards to their right to an education, a privilege recognized in state constitutions. Efforts by Black people to gain a quality education and significantly impact achievement and their quality of life through America's legal system started more than 100 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. This article chronicles these efforts and underscores some of the many cases that have impacted achievement of Blacks in America. Moreover, it explores options for the future and concludes that the struggle for equal educational opportunity for Blacks in this country is vying for the attention of the increasingly more conservative federal court judges.

[T]he Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning Black folk, is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, poor salaries, and wretched housing, is equally bad. Other things being equal, the mixed school is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youth. It gives wider contacts; it inspires greater self-confidence; and suppresses the inferiority complex. But other things seldom are equal, and in that case, Sympathy, Knowledge, and Truth outweigh all that the mixed school can offer. (Du Bois, 1935, p. 335)

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the applicability of the "separate but equal" doctrine to education in its unanimous decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) (Brown I). The High Court held that segregation deprived Black students of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. However, the Court provided no direction on how desegregation of schools was to be implemented. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1955) (Brown II), the Court re-emphasized that segregation was unconstitutional and pointed out that school authorities were given the primary responsibility for elucidating, assessing, and solving problems associated with it, and the lower courts were responsible for determining whether the action of school authorities constituted good faith implementation of the governing constitutional principles that required that segregation be removed from schools. In an effort to expedite this serious work, the Supreme Court offered some general suggestions that lower courts might consider in addressing the problem, including those related to administration, condition of school plant, school transportation systems, personnel, or discriminatory local laws and regulations.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that it may take some time for school districts to create plans to eradicate discrimination, but it ordered in Brown II that public schools in that case "admit students on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed" (p. 301), confirming the fact that they expected full compliance to start as soon as was practicable. However, many challenges, often rooted simply in racism, prevented this order from being carried out with deliberate speed throughout the nation. In fact, years passed before many school systems even attempted to desegregate; and, to delay the process even more, resistant state officials and state legislatures and sometimes White citizens erected barriers to avoid carrying out this order while the expected beneficiaries, Black children, helplessly waited as their education suffered (Gordon, 1994). Some scholars argue that Blacks were experiencing more academic success prior to the Brown I decision to desegregate schools. On balance, scholars have countered that the Brown decisions sought desegregation at all costs, even when Black students appeared to be achieving in segregated but successful schools (Bell, 1987; Cole, 1986). …

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