History of Integration

If “separate but equal” schools ended more than 60 years ago, why are so many schools still segregated or inequitable today? RIDES has traced the policies that led us from segregation to desegregation—and, too often, to resegregation. We are exploring if and how policy now can pave the way to lasting diversity and equity in our nation's schools.

What was your K-12 school experience like?

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As a student, did you attend schools that were diverse? Or as a school leader, parent, or employee, do your schools represent the demographics of your region? Do a wide range of students - of all colors, poor, wealthy, and in-between - learn together in the schools where you are? Have you ever wondered why or why not?

Your answers may seem natural and unremarkable.

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Today, racial and socioeconomic isolation in schools often is seen as “the way things are,” unquestioned until the school board starts rezoning, or neighborhoods undergo demographic shifts, or other initiatives arise that might change which schools enroll which students.

Whether your school experience is in East LA; Norman, Oklahoma; Madison, Wisconsin; suburban Philadelphia; Pinnellas County, Florida: or Chesterfield County, Virginia--to make sense of where we are today, we need to understand the history that got us here.

Policy, politics, and legal decisions produced the school we see today.

This is the story of how policy, politics, and legal decisions drove the change from school segregation to desegregation to the integrated schools we see--or don’t see--today.

We tend to think that today’s system--with some diverse, yet many still-too-segregated schools--just happened. Or that personal choices, about where we live and where we attend school have produced the current situation. That’s wrong. Our current system did not materialize out of thin air, nor was it purely the result of individual preferences. The actions (and often inaction) of courts and politicians, and the responses of school leaders, individual parents and local communities played a vital role in creating the schools we see, work, and learn in today.

For many public school students, homogeneity is the norm.

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Many public schools in America are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s, with poor kids and kids of color too-often receiving less than their more affluent or White peers. Black and brown children, particularly low-income students, are often concentrated in schools and isolated from white or more affluent students. Other schools are disproportionately white and isolated from students of color.

Although America’s public school population is more diverse than it's ever been, with White students making up just 51.5% of public school enrollment and Black and Latino students making up just under 40% of all public school students, nationally, the average White student attends a school where 72.5% of his classmates are also White. Similarly, the average Black or Latino student attends a school where roughly 66% of their fellow students are also Black or Latino. The figures addressing economic segregation are similarly stark. Between 1990 and 2010 socioeconomic segregation in America’s 100 largest school districts increased by 40%.

But isn’t segregation illegal?

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The most important court case to start with in trying to understand school segregation is Brown v. Board of Education. While prior cases address the issue of school segregation at the postsecondary level, Brown, decided in 1954, outlawed segregation in all aspects of public life, including elementary and secondary schools.

When the Supreme Court decided Brown, opposition to desegregation was staunch, yet the Court concluded that whatever the public sentiment, legally, segregation could not be allowed to stand. The Court held that if states decided to make public education available, they had to make it available to all citizens, on an equal basis. Failing to do this would violate the equal protection clauses of the US Constitution.

The limits of Brown v. Board

Rolling back the clock on integration--trends we see today--became easier because of issues the Brown decision did not fully address and subsequent court decisions.

While undeniably meaningful, the Brown decision was by no means perfect. The Court did not explain why segregation per se was a failure to provide education on an equal basis. The decision didn’t really even discuss why segregation in itself was a bad thing. Instead, the decision focused on the importance of education in modern society and briefly touched on how segregation made it difficult for Black students to achieve in school and life. Also absent from Brown were any mechanisms to compel states to desegregate.

A decade of delay after Brown

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“Public education will continue in our city – although every proper effort will be made to minimize the extent of integration when it comes.” - 1954 interview with then-Richmond, Virginia School Board member and soon to be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell

“It has been nine years since the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools, yet less than ten percent of the Negro students in the South are in integrated schools. That isn’t integration, that’s tokenism!” - Malcolm X

Most states made no effort to actually implement Brown in the years following the Court’s ruling. Those that did devise plans did so superficially. Many Southern states actively – and often violently – opposed Brown. Arkansas’ resistance to integration was so intense that in 1957 then President Dwight D. Eisenhower had to federalize the National Guard to force Arkansas to integrate its schools. Aside from this extraordinary instance, for nearly 10 years, little was done at both the state and federal level to actually push states and school districts to implement Brown. The slow pace of implementation following Brown allowed residential segregation to grow as white families left areas facing school desegregation.

A brief push forward - Summer of ‘64

“This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.” -President Lyndon B. Johnson on signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

“ [T]he record in the present case could not be clearer that Prince Edward's public schools were closed and private schools operated in their place with state and county assistance, for one reason, and one reason only: to ensure, through measures taken by the county and the State, that white and colored children in Prince Edward County would not, under any circumstances, go to the same school.” - Justice Hugo Black writing for the Supreme Court in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County

The stagnation changed markedly in 1964 when, for a brief time, all three branches of the federal government were committed to pushing for integration. In the summer of 1964, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act gave the federal government the right to file civil rights lawsuits against and withhold funds from communities that refused to integrate. 

That same year the Supreme Court showed that it was ready to get serious about backing up Brown when in Griffin v. School Board of Prince Edward County the Court refused to allow public funding to be used for all White private schools in Prince Edwards County, Virginia. To avoid integrating, school officials closed all public schools in the county, reopening them as Whites only private schools. 

The decision further stated that the district court could actually order city and state officials to levy taxes to raise funds adequate to reopen, operate, and maintain integrated public schools. Griffin sent a clear signal to states and school districts that if they refused to integrate, federal courts would make them. This opened the door for federal judges to enact strong and sweeping desegregation orders. For a time (but not lasting), these orders became a major vehicle through which courts furthered and maintained school integration initiatives. 

Promising results

While the road to integration was by no means smooth, when it was tried earnestly, it worked. 

In North Carolina the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District enacted a controversial but effective plan that made it a model for what can be done when integration is actually, honestly, tried. The academic performance of Black students jumped, the achievement gap between Black and White students shrunk, and parents – both Black and White – began to see integration as a major benefit helping to advance the learning experiences of their children, not as an imposition to be fought. 

Similarly, when Montgomery, Alabama, merged both local Black and White high schools into the integrated Central High School, the resulting mega-school provided resources far and above what either segregated school could give. The school’s principal at the height of its integration efforts stated recently that “Central and its resources could reach any child.” 

For a brief period, at least in some places, the promise of Brown was being realized with profound effect. 

Push back in the 70s

“Today’s holding, I fear, is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough in enforcing the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice than it is the product of neutral principles of law. In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret. I dissent.” - Justice Thurgood Marshall dissenting opinion in Milliken v. Bradley

Despite the evidence showing that integration worked when tried faithfully, opposition from lawmakers and public officials grew throughout the 1970s. Congress passed legislation systemically defunding desegregation and integration initiatives and prohibiting federally funded legal service organizations from working on desegregation suits. 

The political opposition to desegregation seen in the 1970s was matched by a shift in the Supreme Court’s outlook on integration. Throughout the 1970s, the Court began to undo all that it had previously done to advance integration. Two major cases drove the results we see today.

In its 1973 decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the Court decided (in a 5-4 decision) that education was not a fundamental right guaranteed by the US Constitution.  This meant that laws that limited access to education required only minimal legal justification. Four years later with the Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, another 5 to 4 decision, the Court ruled that interdistrict busing for the sake of desegregating schools was unconstitutional. 

After Milliken many states stopped investing in desegregation programs and in 1974 President Nixon proposed a compromise that effectively ended large scale school integration efforts. Nixon proposed rolling back interdistrict integration programs in exchange for increased funding for urban schools. This compromise promised to provide increased financial support to urban students, who were mostly Black and Brown, but ensured that district lines, often demarcated by race and class, remained intact. 

Federal lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, leaped at the chance to discontinue integration initiatives. Congress passed legislation in line with Nixon’s compromise stating in the legislative record that “the neighborhood is the appropriate basis for determining public school assignments.” This ensured that, even if districts were segregated, under-resourced, or inferior students would have to stay where they were. With many districts already, and becoming increasingly more segregated by race and class, this ensured that that trend would continue.

Pockets of Perseverance

In some localities, desegregation efforts continued, either as voluntary integration plans or through court oversight of mandated plans. Mandated plans can still occur where past de jure segregation has not been remedied. These communities created policies, such as controlled choice plans or regional magnet schools, to make racial and socioeconomic diversity a priority in school enrollment.

It many other areas, however, desegregation efforts receded into history, leading students and school stakeholders today to assume that segregated schools are just “the way things are.” At the same time, many see that the way things are does not equate to the way things should be. Reform policies with different focuses have not produced the desired results or leveraged the diversity of our communities. More than 60 years after Brown, the American education remains unfair and unequal for far too many children.

From understanding to action

There are numerous reasons why we don’t have more truly integrated schools today, but history shows the responsibility of these legal decisions. Understanding this path to our current reality means we can be intentional what the next phase of our history will bring.

Now, scholars, journalists, students, families, education practitioners and policymakers increasingly realize the need for refocusing on integrated schools. Rising media attention, a new generation of Americans committed to diversity, and demographic shifts across the nation prompt not only a better understanding of our past, but a rethinking of our present and  future.

This is where RIDES comes in.

RIDES reimagines integration as the path to the diverse and equitable schools every child needs to thrive in a complex, multicultural, and democratic society. Spreading success takes more than any one school or system can do alone. It takes shared perceptions of the public value of integrated schools to mobilize action.  It takes effective policy to create those schools. It takes clear practices to help schools and school systems move from desegregated to truly integrated. 

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