The First Serious Implementation of Brown: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and Beyond

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board found state-imposed segregation of public schools in violation of the U. S. Constitution; however, implementing this ruling in thousands of local school districts required local plaintiffs, money, and data. A decade passed without significant school desegregation. In 1964, Congress enacted a comprehensive Civil Rights Act that authorized the U.S. Attorney General to bring legal action against segregated school systems on behalf of plaintiffs seeking school desegregation, free of charge; and authorized the Department of Education to collect data on school enrollment by race, making it possible to prove in a court of law the existence of racial segregation. This article provides information about the value and importance of the Act in the elimination of state-imposed school segregation. African Americans in segregated schools received the assistance necessary to prevail in district federal courts, and many cases were argued in Circuit Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), the United States Supreme Court declared that state-imposed racially segregated public elementary and secondary education was unconstitutional. The Brown decision accomplished more than the recognition that education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments in its declaration that segregation had deprived minority children of equal educational opportunities in violation of their right under the "equal protection clause" of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Brown forms the cornerstone for subsequent legal developments. Brown served as the primary motivating force for the passage of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1964, which outlawed the poll tax and literacy tests for voting. Designed to enforce the 14 Amendment, enacted in 1868, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 attacked segregation in public accommodations, employment, and education. A year later, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and three years later the Fair Housing Act in 1968. More than two decades later, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that overturned five U.S. Supreme Court decisions, making it more difficult to bring discrimination suits against public agencies.

This 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most important remedy for implementing Brown, granted the U.S. Attorney General the power and authority to bring suits on behalf of Black plaintiffs in thousands of school districts operating racially segregated public elementary and secondary schools. The 1964 Act also gave the U.S. secretary of Education the authority to collect data to document implementation of Brown and provide grants to school district to assist with school desegregation efforts. The data collection efforts provided data to plaintiffs in school desegregation cases with evidence of a lack of school desegregation in offending school districts.

Prior to the 1964 Act, it was difficult to secure plaintiffs in hundreds of racially segregated school district for fear of reprisals by southern communities. To bring a suit against a southern school district to desegregate, plaintiffs also needed to employ a local state attorney, which was difficult in most cases. The plaintiffs and the local attorney could suffer a lost of employment and suffer physical harm. The Acts granting the Attorney General the authority to bring suits solved these problems for many school suits in small rural communities. Also, the "all due deliberate speed" for implementing Brown outlined in Brown II in 1955 suggested to the federal district courts that it was okay to go slow with school desegregation or do nothing; moreover, Congress did not send a positive signal to the district courts until 1964 with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court waited 14 years after Brown to send the lower courts a signal to accelerate school desegregation in a Virginia case, Green v. …

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