How did school desegregation happen? An historic overview

Many Americans imagine that the Civil Rights movement ended when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. While in the 1970s Bostonians fought over busing and black characters like George Jefferson showed up on TV, the decade is hardly remembered as a time of significant racial change. Yet, it was. For the first time, large numbers of white children, black children, and other children of color began attending school together. It was an experience that shaped them for life.

Early 1900s

From the early 20th century, southern schools were the ultimate battleground in the legal fight to end segregation. As historian James T. Patterson observes, Jim Crow segregation ruled over everything from bathrooms to bus seats, but was most thoroughly anchored in the schools. Ubiquitous and legally sanctioned in the South, school segregation by custom or rule was also common in the rest of the United States. Leading civil rights lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston thought integrating southern schools would have more far-reaching social benefits than desegregating any other public facility or institution.


The Supreme Court's 1954 Brown ruling outlawing racial segregation in schools was an extraordinary victory for that cause. But social change did not occur overnight; nor was reform as thorough or as successful as Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues had imagined. Southern whites put up a major fight and stymied school desegregation for a full decade after the Brown ruling.


The historic 1964 Civil Rights Act included federal measures to enforce school desegregation. Subsequent Congressional action and a series of Supreme Court rulings in the late 1960s and early 1970s compelled public school districts - east and west, north and south - to integrate. The South went first. Economist Charles Clotfelter reports that from 1969 to 1972, the percentage of African Americans attending southern schools that were at least 90 percent black dropped precipitously, from 78 percent to 25 percent. Soon, districts from California to Colorado, Michigan to Massachusetts followed suit.

They did so in all sorts of ways. Some redrew school attendance zones to pull in students from black and white neighborhoods. Others paired all-black and all-white schools so that one became an integrated school for grades 1-3 while the other handled grades 4-6. Some districts bused children to schools outside their neighborhoods to achieve racial balance, the most incendiary approach by far.

1970s and 1980s

Though desegregation swept first through the South, a Supreme Court ruling in 1973 had far-reaching effects on the rest of the country. In Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1, the high court ordered schools that were segregated, not by law but through discriminatory housing patterns, to desegregate. Now it was the rest of the country's turn. Clotfelter shows that from 1968 to1976, the percentage of black students attending racially isolated schools in the United States dropped significantly, from 64 to 36 percent. It was a volatile time, when white liberals and moderates found their progressive convictions tested in their own neighborhoods. Busing became one of the dominant political issues of the decade.

Despite court decisions and aggressive federal measures, many school districts never desegregated. Hastily built private academies drained public schools of white children. In 1974, a watershed Supreme Court decision barred cities from achieving racial balance in schools by busing children from adjoining suburbs if it meant crossing district lines. The ruling effectively killed the possibility of meaningful racial desegregation in many urban areas.

Still, communities nationwide did desegregate, some with striking success. Children starting kindergarten in the late 1960s were more likely than ever to enter a racially mixed school. In the 1970s, unprecedented numbers of black, white, Latino, and Asian students moved through their elementary years and into high school together. The early 1980s marked America's peak in the long campaign to desegregate public schools. Indeed, public schools in the South - once bastions of Jim Crow segregation - were the most integrated in the United States.

Proponents of desegregation often view the 1970s and 80s as a brief window of promise that closed prematurely.

1990s and on

By the early 1990s the trend toward school desegregation had begun to reverse. Three Supreme Court decisions set the course by limiting the scope of Brown v. Board of Education. Efforts by other branches of the government to roll back school desegregation plans also took effect. By the late 1990s, some courts even barred school districts from voluntary desegregation efforts.

The Supreme Court decision of June 2007 is likely to accelerate that trend. The decision came in two cases from Seattle and Louisville. In both cases, white parents filed suit after their children were denied admission to the public schools of their choice because of their race.

The court threw out Louisville and Seattle's integration plans. It forbids schools from using race to assign children to schools unless they are under a court order to remedy past inequities.

In its decision, the Court acknowledged that school districts may consider diversity valuable. But Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "Simply because the school districts may seek a worthy goal does not mean they are free to discriminate on the basis of race to achieve it."

The decision means districts across the country will have to revise their desegregation plans. School districts may try other ways of keeping schools diverse, such as using magnet schools to draw people across racial lines, or assigning students to schools based on income.

"People need to understand that we have race-based solutions because nothing else worked," says Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project. "Other things failed miserably."

Orfield says school districts around the country that have abandoned race-based school assignments have seen rapid resegregation.

Today, schools are more segregated than they were in the 1980s. Gary Orfield says that's partly because there's simply a smaller percentage of white children in schools, but it's also partly because of public policy. He says the problem with resegregation is that separate is not equal.

"There's nothing magic about sitting next to a white child," Orfield says. "But there is a tremendous difference between a middle class and a high-poverty school."

Orfield's research demonstrates that schools that are heavily black and Hispanic tend also to be schools where many of the children come from low-income families.

"If you look at these highly concentrated impoverished minority high schools, those are the country's drop-out factories," he says. "A few hundred schools where most of the kids never graduate from high school and almost nobody is prepared for college. These are places that just destroy people's lives."

As the United States moves away from aggressive pursuit of school desegregation, the question going forward is how will public policy address the nation's growing diversity? Will communities be able to build on racial connections forged in the era of school desegregation? Or will America travel a path toward greater racial divides?

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