Remembering Brown v. Board of Education: this month marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision eliminating the separate-but-equal doctrine. This excerpt, from the book All Deliberate Speed, examines the initial resistance by the local, state, and federal governments
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.
On May 17, 1954, an otherwise uneventful Monday afternoon, 15 months into Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, issued a historic ruling that he and his colleagues hoped would irrevocably change the social fabric of the United States. “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate-but-equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
At the time, no one doubted the far-reaching implications of the Court’s ruling. The [Brown v. Board of Education] lawyers had apparently accomplished what politicians, scholars, and others could not–an unparalleled victory that would create a nation of equal justice under the law. The Court’s decision seemed to call for a new era in which black children and white children would have equal opportunities to achieve the proverbial American Dream. It did not come too soon for the families whose children were victims of segregation.
Having broadly proclaimed its support of desegregating public schools, the Supreme Court shortly thereafter issued its opinion–the opinion that legitimized much of the social upheaval that forms the central theme of [the book All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (W.W. Norton & Co.; $25.95)]. Fearful that southern segregationists, as well as the executive and legislative branches of state and federal governments, would both resist and impede this courageous decision, the Court offered a palliative to those opposed to Brown’s directive. Speaking again with one voice, the Court concluded that, to achieve the goal of desegregation, the lower federal courts were to “enter such orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit republic schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.”
As Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers pondered the second decision, they tried to ascertain what the Court meant in adding the crucial phrase “all deliberate speed” to its opinion. It is reported that after the lawyers read the decision, a staff member consulted a dictionary to confirm their worst fears–that the “all deliberate speed” language meant “slow” and that the apparent victory was compromised because resisters were allowed to and segregation on their own timetable. These three critical words would indeed turn out to be of great consequence, in that they ignore the urgency on which the Brown lawyers insisted.
Brown v. Board of Education had a profound and indelible impact on the United States. Declared the “case of the century,” it established that intentional segregation was unconstitutional. This ruling served to fuel the civil rights movement and to challenge the legitimacy of all public institutions that embraced segregation. However, there was significant political and legal resistance to Brown’s mandate, and some commentators assert that because the mandate was not bolstered by vigorous enforcement, political leaders opposed to Brown could easily thwart its promise. Given the Brown Court’s lack of firm resolve, as evidenced in its express refusal to order an immediate injunction against segregation and in its “all deliberate speed” modification, public resistance was inevitable. The resistance that came from local, state and federal executive branch officials, and the absence of a coordinated effort on either the state or the federal level to enforce desegregation vigorously, compounded the Court’s failure.
Prior to the oral argument in Brown, the United States had filed an amicus brief stating that Plessy v. Ferguson had been wrongly decided and that if the Court should reach the constitutional question in Brown, Plessy should be overruled. Before the case was reargued, a new Republican administration, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, took office. Through Eisenhower personally contributed to the second government brief in support of desegregation, his position was significantly weaker than the preceding administration’s. Although he said he favored desegregation in principle, he “waffled on when and how it might be accomplished in public schools.” While this did not mark a departure from the government’s prior stance, it significantly decreased the possibility of effective, aggressive desegregation.
Brown II [decided on May 31, 1955, to answer what means should be used to implement the principles announced in the original 1954 Brown decision] provided no judicial guidance on remedies: it merely signaled that southern school boards could move gradually, “with all deliberate speed.” Faced with this instruction, school districts stalled until they were forced to choose one of two options, neither of which welcomed Brown with immediate integration through affirmative measures. The two options approved by lower courts–assignment on the basis of residence and freedom of choice–accompanied the repeal of de jure segregation. Even before residence assignment were struck down by the Court as “inevitably lead[ing] toward segregation,” freedom-of-choice plans emerged as the most common response to Brown. These plans repeatedly failed to yield any significant desegregation. Yet until 1968 they largely survived judicial review because courts interpreted Brown as requiring only that black and white children have the option of attending school together. Representative of this view is a federal district court’s insistence that even after Brown the Constitution” does not require integration, it merely forbids [segregation].” This statement reflects a troublingly narrow reading of Brown, adopted by several current justices, that the constitutional problem at issue was state-sanctioned segregation, not a lack of integration.
Supporters of Brown expected President Eisenhower to back the Brown mandate, because he was certainly the most powerful and commanding white leader and, as president, had the moral authority to influence the public debate on integration. Moreover, Eisenhower was very popular among white business leaders in the South and leaders of the armed forces who would hold the keys to community responses to Brown. Eisenhower, like many whites, considered himself a racially tolerant man and issued a number of presidential decrees in support of desegregation of federal facilities and schools in the District of Columbia. The public view, though, was that these actions were more ceremonial than substantive.
When the Supreme Court issued Brown in May 1954, Eisenhower accepted the decision, as he was bound to, but did not endorse it. Publicly he stated, “The Supreme Court has spoken, and I am sworn to uphold their–the constitutional processes in this country, and I am trying. I will obey.” Privately, however, he stated that the Court’s decision had set race relations progress back 15 years and that desegregation could lead to social disintegration. Indeed, though the segregationists who were opposed to Brown made their voices heard on the floor of Congress, on national television, and in public forums, the president did not respond. Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia coined the phrase “massive resistance,” and 90% of the congressional delegation from the South signed a “Southern Manifesto,” denouncing Brown as a “clear abuse of judicial power” and vowing to reverse it by using “all lawful means” at their disposal.
Senator Strom Thurmond, meanwhile, called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren and other members of the Court. When Eisenhower did speak out, he emphasized that integration should happen slowly. His position thus made it appear that any school district or judge calling for an expeditious implementation of Brown was taking an extremist stand.
During the oral arguments in the Brown cases, Thurgood Marshall continually asserted that if any unyielding Supreme Court issued a stern decree, and if the executive branch supported it, the American people would follow, and desegregation would occur without major social upheaval, The unfortunate reality was that the Court did not issue a stern decree and that there was no immediate executive enforcement. In the Brown II decision, issued on May 31, 1955, the Court refused to grant the petitioner’s request that all schools be enjoined to desegregate immediately. It instead took a cautious approach–perhaps it knew that it would not have the backing of the Eisenhower administration or Congress to effectuate a swift and stern mandate. Neither of the other two branches of the federal government had expressed much enthusiasm for actions that would support or enforce the Court’s order. Thus, the Court sent the school desegregation cases back to the federal district courts with directions to desegregate the schools “with all deliberate speed.”
In the 11 states of the Deep South, the judges had the job of forcing compliance on unwilling school boards. Because President Eisenhower followed a policy of nonintervention on desegregation, the judges were less likely to act. Though the federal judges may have been politically insulated by lifetime appointments, they were still fearful of taking what could be perceived as an aggressive stance on integration, especially without the full backing of the federal government. Thus, if a judge could imagine a legitimate reason to delay, he would delay: in this way, “the most recalcitrant judge and the most defiant school board were allowed to set the pace.”
In the absence of strong leadership by the federal government, local officials did their best to thwart, court orders of desegregation. They rushed to build schools before Brown came down to ensure that, while segregated, they were “equal.” When the Brown decision overturned Plessy, most communities decided to wait and see what the decision really meant.
In fact, the southern segregated school system remained almost completely segregated for a full decade after Brown. By 1964, only one-fiftieth of all southern black children attended integrated schools. In the North, many school districts refused to provide racial data that could be used to measure segregation; northern segregation remained unaffected until the mid-1970s. Some states, such as North Carolina, practiced token integration and positioned themselves to be somewhat conciliatory, thereby escaping judicial scrutiny of their public educational systems and actually experiencing less integration than those states that more fiercely resisted integration.
From the White House to the city councils of the smallest towns, those in power found ways to either subtly defer or defiantly oppose desegregation. Thus the words “all deliberate speed” effectively lost their meaning. Several states–namely Alabama, Virginia, and Georgia–tried to deactivate the Brown II order by passing laws that forbade local authorities to desegregate, whether or not it was in compliance with a federal injunction.
Similarly, Governor Faubus of Arkansas chose the segregation issue as the cornerstone of his campaign for a third term. And on September 3, 1957, he called out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. When a federal district judge enjoined Faubus from keeping the black students from attending, Faubus sent the troops away and left the students to deal with the angry mob alone. President Eisenhower ultimately intervened, sending in army troops and federalized Arkansas National Guardsmen to protect the students, who finally attended a full day of classes on September 23.
The Little Rock school board reacted by stating that the disorder proved that, desegregation had to be delayed further. This led to litigation, spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall, that turned into the landmark case of Cooper v. Aaron.
The Brown strategy was challenged, on the one hand, by officials in the executive and legislative branches who thought that the effort to desegregate the schools was moving too quickly and, on the other, by civil rights leaders who regarded the progress as far too slow. Thurgood Marshall would soon realize that the Brown strategy was not, only vulnerable to attacks in the courts but also subject to questioning by the African-American community. While Marshall continued to press for legal reform, an effort was under way to fight segregation through political channels–an effort led by a Morehouse College-educated minister from Atlanta named Marlin Luther King Jr.
LINDA BROWN THOMPSON
The face behind the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down the separate-but-equal laws that were the legal basis for school segregation in this country in the case Brown v. Board of Education was a little girl named Linda Brown. As a 7-year old growing up in Topeka, Kansas, Brown had to walk past the nearby Sumner Elementary School located in her integrated neighborhood, to attend al-black Monroe Elementary School, which had broken ceiling tiles and windows, Frustrated with Topeka’s segregated school system and the fact that his daughter had to walk a half-mile in addition to taking a two-mile bus ride across town, Oliver Brown walked into Sumner Elementary with his daughter and requested that she be enrolled. School officials refused to admit Linda–sticking to the school system’s strict segregation policies. This prompted Oliver Brown, along with other black parents and the local chapter of the NAACP, to file a class-action suit against the Topeka school board. The rest is a well-known fact in the annals of American law.
However, what isn’t as widely known is the follow-up lawsuit that came 25 years later. In 1979, Linda Brown Thompson, who was married with two children of her own in the Topeka school system, joined four black lawyers and a group of black parents in a second class-action lawsuit, charging that the Topeka school board had not gone far enough to eliminate the vestiges of segregation. This follow-up case resulted 14 years later in a court-ordered desegregation plan and a multimillion-dollar bond issue to build three new schools. It was a successful legal challenge: According to published accounts, since the 1994-95 school year, the Topeka school district has met the court’s goal of eliminating racially identifiable schools.
Brown Thompson’s life turned out to be more than just an ordinary life. It turned into a crusade for equal education. Today, 50 years after the decision that desegregated the public school system, Brown Thompson continues to speak out on the quality of education for black students. With her sister Cheryl, Brown Thompson chronicles the history of their family’s court battle, as well as its impact on education and the civil rights movement. It is their story that brings this historical case to life.–Kenneth Meeks
Excerpted from All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education, by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. Copyright [c] 2004 by Charles. J. Ogletree, Jr. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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