Unhappy with the outcome, and facing resistance from
powerful Southern officials, Eisenhower nonetheless swore to uphold
the Constitutional process. Anticipating problems with enforcing
the process of school integration, the Court had stated that the
question of implementing the decision would be taken up the following
For the most part, news of the decision generated
a renewed optimism throughout the African American community. Marshall
remained cautious, but he too anticipated the decision would promote
relatively rapid and significant change.
Southern reaction was swift and guarded. In the Border
States, where officials more openly endorsed compliance with the
decision, it appeared that the process of desegregation would at
but there were, of course, exceptions.
In Milford, Delaware, a community that included many
poor white farmers, a rumor circulated that one of the eleven Black
students newly admitted to the local high school on the orders of
Chancellor Seitz had asked a white girl to a dance. There was no
history here of open confrontation between the races, but long-standing
tensions escalated quickly and the school was closed amidst threats
absence of official leadership provided a perfect opening for con
man-turned demagogue, Bryant Bowles. Bowles founded the National
Association for the Advancement of White People. He descended on
the community from nearby Baltimore, Maryland, rallying large crowds
and preaching an ardent gospel of segregation. ‘The Negro,’
he shouted, ‘will not be satisfied until he moves into the
bedroom of the white man's home.’ Bowles complicated the process
of integraion in Delaware, fanning the fires of hatred and suspicion.
It would take nearly a decade, until 1962, for Black students to
again be admitted to Milford's white schools.
On May 31, 1955, after considering for a year the
expected Southern resistance to integration, and the cost and difficulties
in actually upholding the new declaration that separate was inherently
unequal, a cautious Court again announced a unanimous decision in
what would come to be called Brown
II. The South, the Supreme Court concluded, should be directed
to proceed with integrating its public schools "...with
all deliberate speed." The line would become infamous for
its vagueness, its inability to demand a specific timeline for integration.
Anti-integrationists would use the phrase as a pivotal point for
No deadlinewas set for implementation of the Brown
decision. Rather, federal judges in district and appeals courts
in the south and Border States were instructed to require that the
defendants make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance.
The outcome of such language was predictable, and progress was limited
by the language of the law that had finally established the principle
of equal education.
remained optimistic but opposition from extremists and even more
moderate southern whites was consistent, organized and sometimes
deadly. On March 12, 1956, 19 Senators and 77 House Members representing
eleven states issued "The Southern Manifesto", declaring
that ‘the unwarranted decision of the Supreme Court in the
public school cases is now bearing the fruit always produced when
men substitute naked power for established law.’.
By 1957, television was well on the way to becoming
a dominant presence in the mainstream American home. When violence
erupted in Little Rock, Arkansas in September of that year, viewers
got an up close and personal look at the ongoing resistance that
plagued school desegregation. Violent mobs of angry whites barred
students from admission to Central High School for two weeks. Eisenhower
waffled, then sent in the National Guard to restore order. The events
served to further radicalize southern resistance.
An emerging civil rights movement led by a new guard
of African American leadership professed that the Courts alone could
not reshape American Society and produce the equality that continued
to elude its citizens of color. By 1960, even Marshall conceded
that litigation alone would not be enough to establish equality
and harmony between the races.
Buoyed by the results of boycotts and other public displays of solidarity
led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., expectations among blacks and
sympathetic whites was rising. Activism worked, though some civil
rights activists were becoming increasingly confrontational. In
1963, President John F. Kennedy introduced a civil rights bill.
Movement strengthened and grew. Resolved to continue after Kennedy's
death, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into
law on July 2, 1964. It was immediately followed by a Voting Rights
Act the following year. Confirming his belief in a Great Society
in which government would take a leadership position in insuring
equal rights for all of its citizens, Johnson addressed a graduating
class at Howard University.
Ironically, the process of desegregating America's public schools
proceeded most smoothly in the south. Full desegregation would take
nearly another decade, a speed that many found to be all too deliberate.
But test scores, graduation rates and college attendance of African
American students continued to rise.
The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil
unrest in major American cities in the north and west that followed,
accelerated a ‘white flight’ to the suburbs that had
begun earlier in the decade. By 1973, it was complete. Weary from
the Vietnam War and a dampened economy, the country, including some
members of the rising black middle class, had little interest in
further pursuing the cause of housing rights for large numbers of
poorer African Americans left in the nation's inner cities What
came to be known as ‘defacto
segregation’ in urban neighborhoods only compounded the
process. Still, plans for implementing school desegregation orders
continued to evolve and included busing students across neighborhoods
to achieve to racial balance.
July 25, 1974, a closely divided Supreme Court led by Chief Justice
Warren Burger refused to uphold a broad
metropolitan plan for integrating inner-city and suburban school
children, via busing, in Detroit.
In his dissenting opinion, Thurgood Marshall, who
had been appointed the first African-American Supreme Court Justice,
wrote, "Our nation, I fear, will be ill-served by the Court's
refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our
children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our
people will ever learn to live together."
In the fall of 1974, President
Richard Nixon won a second term in office. On the first day
of court-ordered busing in Boston, Massachusetts, opposition, largely
from working class whites, came to a head in violent confrontation.
The following years saw a stale-mate in the process
of desegregation. No one involved in the cases in 1954 could have
imagined the tremendous social and political resistance to the integration
of public education.
Some seventy years after its first Court victory,
the LDF's legal battle to level the playing field for students of
color at the graduate level continues. In 2003, the NAACP Legal
Defense and Education Fund, Inc. won a victory in the Supreme Court
when the justices upheld the use of race in admissions policies
at the University of Michigan Law School.
These most recent Supreme Court cases dealing with
race and education are a pointed reminder to Americans that the
battle to equalize opportunity in education is still very much in
progress, the best solutions to the problems that have arisen are
still in heated debate, and the proponents of integration are actively
following in the foosteps of Marshall, Houston, and the millions
of anonymous citizens who have struggled to secure the equality
promised in the founding doctrines of this country.