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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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If You Were a Supreme Court Justice ...

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The Brown v. Board of Education decision did not dictate how schools should desegregate. Many systems did not want to desegregate and experimented with ways to get around the Court decision in Brown to take advantage of the vague mandate. Many law suits were filed by minority students, the NAACP, and the Justice Department to force school districts to comply with the Brown decision. The law, however, was not always clear.

As groups or as individuals, read the following descriptions of school segregation cases that came before the Supreme Court of the United States after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Taking into consideration what you know about the Brown case and the spirit in which it was written, how would you decide each one? After you discuss each case, read how the actual Supreme Court of the United States decided the case.

Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968)

States and counties adopted many different plans to desegregate their schools. In 1965, the New Kent County school board adopted a "freedom-of-choice plan," which essentially allowed students in the rural, residentially integrated district to choose which of the two schools they wished to attend-the formerly all black Watkins School or the formerly all-white New Kent School. After three years of the new plan, no whites had elected to attend Watkins and only 115 blacks attended New Kent. The black school children in this case contended that the "freedom-of-choice plan" in practice operated to perpetuate the racially dual (segregated) school system. It placed the burden of desegregation on the black children's shoulders.

If you were a Supreme Court justice, would you rule this "freedom-of-choice plan" constitutional?

The Court's decision

In Green, the Supreme Court ruled that schools must dismantle segregated dual (or segregated) systems "root and branch" and that desegregation must be achieved with respect to facilities, staff, faculty, extracurricular activities, and transportation. Subsequently, courts used these "Green factors" as a guide in crafting desegregation plans. More importantly, however, the factors have become a standard by which to determine whether school districts have achieved "unitary status," or fully integrated schools.

  • Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard School Project on School Desegregation. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press, 1996.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education (1971)

The school district in question was a part-urban, part-rural district covering 550 square miles and serving 84,000 pupils in 101 schools. The school population was 29 percent black and those pupils were concentrated in one quadrant of Charlotte. Even after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, more than half of the black students attended schools without any white students or teachers. After the Green decision, the federal district court adopted a plan to scatter the highly concentrated black-student population by transporting students. The plan would involve 13,000 students and require 100 new buses at a cost of millions of dollars.

If you were a Supreme Court justice, would you order the desegregation of this school district through a busing system to disperse students?

The Court's decision

This decision struck down "racially neutral" student assignment plans that produced segregation by relying on existing residential patterns in the South. The Court in Swann ruled that desegregation must be achieved in each of a district's schools to the greatest possible extent and approved busing as a means to do so.

  • Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard School Project on School Desegregation. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press, 1996.

Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (1973)

This was one of the first cases dealing with school segregation outside of the South. In this case, the lower courts found that the Denver School District deliberately engaged in discrimination in the Park Hill section of the district by building schools in certain areas, gerrymandering student attendance zones, and by the excessive use of mobile classroom units, among other things. The petitioners in the case not only wanted the Park Hill section of the city to be desegregated, but wanted the courts to order desegregation of all segregated schools in the city of Denver, particularly the heavily segregated schools in the core city area, even though there was no evidence of a deliberate attempt to segregate students in all-black schools there.

If you were a Supreme Court justice, would you order the entire district desegregated, or just the Park Hill area?

The Court's decision

This was the first ruling on school segregation in the North and West, where there were no explicit statutes requiring segregation in the past. Under Keys, school districts were responsible for policies that resulted in racial segregation in the school system, including constructing schools in racially isolated neighborhoods and gerrymandering attendance zones. Once intentional segregation was found on the part of the school board in a portion of the district, the whole district was presumed to be illegally segregated. The case also recognized Latino's right to desegregation, as well as that of African American students.

  • Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard School Project on School Desegregation. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press, 1996.

Milliken v. Bradley (1974)

This case concerned the segregation practices of the Detroit school district, which was the fifth largest in the nation in 1970. Several black students and the NAACP filed the suit against the Detroit school district alleging past and present discrimination in the Detroit system, particularly in the drawing of school district and attendance zone boundaries. Lower courts found that there was discrimination and ordered the system to desegregate. Because of white flight to the suburbs, the Detroit school district was largely black, making it difficult to truly desegregate. A plan was devised to include surrounding majority white school districts in the desegregation plan, even though those districts had not engaged in any illegal segregation. This was believed necessary because without their participation, there could not be a racial balance in Detroit's schools.

If you were a Supreme Court justice, would you approve the plan to desegregate multiple school districts even though only one school district had been found to have illegally discriminated?

The Court's decision

In this decision, the Supreme Court blocked efforts for interdistrict, city-suburban desegregation remedies as a means to integrate racially isolated city schools. The Court prohibited such remedies unless plaintiffs could demonstrate that the suburbs or the state took actions that contributed to segregation in the city. Because proving suburban and state liability is often difficult, Milliken effectively shut off the option of drawing from heavily white suburbs in order to integrate city districts with very large minority populations.

  • Orfield, Gary, Susan E. Eaton, and the Harvard School Project on School Desegregation. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press, 1996.

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