Legal and Policy Issues: Removing the Residue of Past Segregation in Higher Education

Article excerpt

This article examines the impact of the Knight v. Alabama ruling by looking at undergraduate student demographic data for historically Black Alabama A& M University and Alabama State University and traditionally White Auburn University and the University of Alabama. It also evaluates developments in higher education in Alabama after the Knight decision. Moreover, the article endeavors to determine if the state has been slow in implementing the court's ruling. The decision in the case ultimately held that vestiges of de jure segregation were still extant in Alabama universities and colleges. The federal district court ruled that the state of Alabama needed to take steps to rectify the situation. The court also mandated that Alabama engage in affirmative efforts to eradicate the remaining residue of discrimination and segregation.


The history of segregation and desegregation in higher education has been well documented in annals of legal history. Segregation and desegregation remain an issue in America, and some wonder if the principles enunciated in Brown will ever truly take hold (Stefkovich & Leas, 1994). With Brown v. Board of Education (1954) serving as the anchor case, desegregation history can be divided into two eras-the old and new. The old-era cases primarily dealt with overturning statesanctioned segregation. Seminal cases from the old era consist of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky (1908), Missouri ex r el. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Pearson v. Murry (1936), Sipuel v. Oklahoma (1948), McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950), and Sweatt v. Painter (1950). The new-era cases deal with equity in higher education for historically Black colleges and universities. Some seminal cases of the new era are Adams v. Richardson (1973), Ayers v. Fordice (1997), United States v. Fordice (1992), Geier v. Alexander (1984), United States v. Alabama (1987), Knight v. Alabama (1991), and United States v. Louisiana (1993).


The federal court ruling in Knight v. Alabama represents the problems of truly integrating educational institutions in the southern states in the modern era. The decision in the case ultimately held that vestiges of de jure segregation still existed in institutions of higher learning in Alabama and that the State of Alabama needed to take steps to rectify the situation. The federal district court ruling in the case mandated that Alabama engage in affirmative efforts to break down the remaining residue of discrimination and segregation, including such affirmative actions as actively recruiting more African American students and faculty to the historically White state schools, ensuring that the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) within the state receive appropriate resources and funding, and ensuring that White students are recruited for HBCUs and that diversity is promoted at the state's HBCUs.

The case of Knight v. Alabama originated from a Title VI compliance investigation of Alabama's public higher education by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1981, Governor Fob James and the presidents of the state's public higher education institutions received letters from the U.S. Department of Education alleging that vestiges of the former de jure segregated system remained in the state's universities and colleges, which, if true, was a violation of Title VI. Alabama was directed to submit a plan that would ensure that all remaining residue of segregation would be removed. Nineteen other southern and border states were ordered to prepare plans as well (Brown, 1999; Freer, 1982).

After months of unsuccessful negotiations between the Governor's office and the Office of Civil Rights, the Assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights sent a letter to Governor James stating that within 10 days of receipt of the letter Alabama must submit a plan or the matter would be referred to the United States justice Department for litigation. …


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