Challenging Jim Crow schools: Then and now

May 15, 2014

May 17 marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated schools. But today, re-segregation is the rule. In this edited excerpt from his chapter on "The Struggle for Black Education" in Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, Brian Jones recounts the struggle that led to Brown--and what happened after.

"We want mixed schools not because our colored schools are inferior to white schools--not because colored instructors are inferior to white instructors, but because we want to do away with a system that exalts one class and debases another."
-- Frederick Douglass

THROUGHOUT THE 20th century, the millions of African American families that migrated from the countryside to Southern and Northern cities had high expectations for urban life. Above all, they expected that their children would be able to get a better education.

But wherever Black people moved--to the Northern cities, to the West, or even to the Southern centers of industry--they were crowded into ghettoes and forced to send their children to segregated schools.

We're often taught that segregation in the South was a matter of law, whereas in the North, it was merely custom. But Black people who migrated to the North encountered a web of racial restrictions on their housing and school options--more often than not, backed up by government agencies and the force of law.

Students study in an all-Black segregated school
Students study in an all-Black segregated school

In the face of all this, Black parents waged a heroic struggle to end segregated schooling. The famous 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka--which declared segregated schools unconstitutional--is often perceived as the starting point for this movement.

In reality, it began much earlier. From the 1920s to the 1950s, large desegregation battles took place in Northern suburbs and industrial towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York and Michigan.

The NAACP challenged segregated schooling through lawsuits. In many cases, however, it was direct action that led to the lawsuits in the first place.

In 1951, Barbara Johns, a high school junior, organized a student strike at her all-Black high school in Virginia to protest poor conditions and overcrowding. Students contacted the NAACP for help, but its lawyers advised them against striking. The strikers' determination won the lawyers over, however, and their claim became part of the basis of the Brown case.

THAT THE Supreme Court's decision was a watershed event is not in doubt. While Brown did not immediately end segregation, it did give Black parents and students a tremendous boost in confidence. For decades, they had struggled against segregated schools. Now, the highest court in the land ruled that segregation must end.

Rather than addressing the problem of residential segregation or inferior resources or facilities--the fact that separate schools in a racist society would never be equal--the court hung its decision on the narrower issue of psychology: a "sense of inferiority" produced by segregated schools that "affects the motivation of a child to learn."

By contrast, Black parents on the whole did not believe that their children needed to sit next to white kids to improve their self-esteem. The reason for putting their kid in a "white" school was primarily a strategy for getting access to better resources. As Detroit parent Vera Bradley put it: "We were upset because they weren't getting as many materials as some other schools. We figured if it was desegregated, we would get the same."

The psychological angle of Brown had the perverse effect of stigmatizing Black schools (and consequently, Black teachers) as necessarily inferior. Black kids were to be "integrated" into white schools--but never vice versa.

Furthermore, the court set no timeline for desegregation. A year later, in what is widely known as the Brown II ruling, it called for desegregation to take place "with all deliberate speed." In the opinion of one NAACP lawyer, this really meant "movement toward compliance on terms that the white South could accept."

In the years that followed, Black people took advantage of Brown and pressed to make its promise a reality. They faced stiff resistance.

Petitions for desegregation were rejected in dozens of Southern cities. In one case, 53 Black people signed a petition in Yazoo City, Miss. After weeks of retaliation--firings, evictions and other harassments--every single signature had been retracted. In 1956, Alabama outlawed the NAACP altogether. In 1957, when the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth tried to enroll his children in an all-white school, he and they narrowly escaped with their lives.

Famously, when Black students tried to integrate Little Rock Central High School in September 1957, they were driven back by the Texas Rangers and by racist mobs. President Dwight Eisenhower tried to avoid the conflict, but eventually was forced to send U.S. troops to escort the students--the first time federal troops had been sent into the South since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.

Southern racists dug in their heels to preserve the Jim Crow system. Defenders of Northern segregation did the same. By 1962, the NAACP was participating in legal challenges to school segregation in 69 Northern and Western cities. But the courts increasingly leaned toward the view that plaintiffs had to prove school districts were segregated intentionally--the fact of segregation was not sufficient to hold them responsible.

THE LEGAL strategy was not enough. A decade after Brown, 90.7 percent of the South's Black children still attended all-Black schools--400,000 more than in 1956.

The same was true, unfortunately, in the North and West. After Brown, schools in Los Angeles became more segregated. The California Eagle reported that more Black children attended all-Black schools in Los Angeles than in Little Rock. In New York City, the number of Black and Puerto Rican segregated schools climbed nearly fourfold, from 52 in 1955 to 201 in 1965.

By this point, however, there was no going back. Black parents and students were determined to secure what the courts deemed was theirs by right. Legal victories would be meaningless, however, unless Black people were willing to take the struggle outside the courtroom. The fight against segregated schools--especially in the Northern cities--became a mass movement.

In New York, Viola Waddy was a part of a group of Harlem parents who, defying the law, kept their children out of school in 1958. The "Harlem Nine" won an important victory when a judge ruled that the New York City Board of Education was offering inferior education to Black children.

In Boston, nearly 2,500 Black students stayed out of city schools in 1963 to protest racial segregation. A second boycott saw 20,000 participate and led to the passage of the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, which "forbade the commonwealth from supporting any school that was more than 50 percent white (although the act considered majority or all- white schools racially balanced)."

In the Midwest, Black people in Chicago formed a multiracial coalition that led boycotts against segregation in 1963 and 1964 (with 224,000 and 172,000 children participating, respectively). In 1964, 20,000 students boycotted segregated schools in Gary, Ind., and more than 75,000 did so in Cleveland, Ohio.

Taken together, the years 1963 to 1965 represented the apogee of this movement. In New York City, almost 500,000 students stayed out of school in February 1964, and more than 350,000 did so a second time to press for integration. These were the civil rights movement's largest mass actions.

Overall, desegregation was most successful in the Southern states. In 11 Southern states, the number of children in all-Black schools plummeted from two-thirds in 1968 to one-sixth in 1970, to one-eleventh in 1971-72. In the North, by contrast, there had been progress since 1954, but after 1960--outside of a few locations where desegregation orders stuck--segregation worsened.

DESPITE THE claims of its defenders, Northern segregation was not the result of the "natural" inclinations of individuals or the invisible hand of the free market. Rather, segregation was engineered.

In the post-Second World War years, the federal government built interstate highways nationwide and subsidized home loans for 16 million veterans. Through these policies, the Federal Housing Administration encouraged middle-class residents to leave the inner cities and discouraged the development of city neighborhoods. The terms of those loans mandated that new housing developments remain racially homogenous. Meanwhile, only 5 percent of new housing construction between 1949 and 1964 was for low-income residents.

In other words, the federal government underwrote segregation. The Black movement, powerful as it was, did not succeed in untangling this web of institutional racism.

White resistance to desegregation took a variety of forms. "White flight" was the most basic. When Black families moved into a neighborhood or sent their children to a school, white families often moved to another neighborhood or sent their children to a different school.

When their school districts were ordered to desegregate, some white parents complained that this violated the free-market principle of "choice." One white Detroit parent wrote in a local newspaper: "We believe 'forced busing' is depriving us of our Constitutional Rights and our Freedom of Choice."

Or they argued that busing was destroying the foundation of American society by forcibly separating children from their neighborhood school. But as historian Jeanne Theoharis argues, in this context, the very term neighborhood schools "brings to mind a close-knit, small-town (if imaginary) America that diverts attention away from who gets to be part of the neighborhood in the first place."

The busing issue was always a canard. In 1970, half of students in the U.S. went to school by bus, but fewer than 5 percent of those students did so because of desegregation plans.

In fact, busing had long been an instrument of segregation. In Boston, for example, where white parents used the bogey of "forced busing" to oppose desegregation, thousands of white students were already being bused every day past their neighborhood schools to attend all-white ones further away.

That the tremendous efforts of Black parents and students yielded so little progress--especially in the urban school systems in the North--created an atmosphere of frustration. In 1969, the New York Times reported: "Increasing numbers of young Negroes are tiring of the steady abuse that comes with integrating white schools. Many...believe that integration has been too nearly a one-way street with Negroes always leaving their schools to go to white schools."

Desegregation remained a popular demand, but the intransigence of white racist reaction sent many Black people looking for other means to secure quality education. "When 10,000 Queens [New York] white mothers showed up to picket at City Hall against integration," Doris Innis remembered, "it was obvious we had to look for other solutions." In this context, some Black parents and activists began to raise the demand of community control.

AMERICAN SCHOOLS have become resegregated. Sixty years after the Brown decision, they are profoundly separate and unequal.

This is not to say that Brown and the social movements that preceded and followed it had no impact. "American society as a whole was dramatically transformed by Brown," writes education historian Diane Ravitch. "It is almost impossible to imagine the election of a Black president in 2008 without that decision, which opened doors on campus, in the workplace, in politics and in popular culture.

"And yet...there is a curious conundrum. The Brown decision was about public schools, but it seems to have had a large impact upon every aspect of American life except the public schools."

In 2007, Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, writing for UCLA's Civil Rights Project, summarized how various branches of government conspired since the early 1970s to dismantle desegregation.

"The fact of resegregation," they wrote, "does not mean that desegregation failed and was rejected by Americans who experienced it. Of course, the demographic changes made full de-segregation with whites more difficult, but the major factor, particularly in the South, was that we stopped trying.

"Five of the last seven Presidents actively opposed urban desegregation, and the last significant federal aid for desegregation was repealed 26 years ago, in 1981. The last Supreme Court decision expanding desegregation rights was handed down in 1973, more than a third of a century ago, one year before a decision rejecting city-suburban desegregation.

The 1973 San Antonio v. Rodriguez decision upheld the localized system of school funding, primarily through property taxes. Thus, schools in wealthy district were guaranteed larger school budgets than those in poorer neighborhoods. The next year, the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision essentially stated that desegregation plans could not force students to cross school district lines unless there was evidence that multiple districts had conspired to deliberately segregate students.

Rodriguez and Milliken set the pattern for the decades to come. Segregation was given a pass, and localized funding was declared constitutional.

The results should not be surprising. As of 2005, 35 states were spending less on the districts with the most minority students than they were on the districts with the fewest. Nationwide, this amounted to a differential of approximately $1,100 per child. New York had the highest racial differential: $2,200 per child.

Tragically, there is very little political will to do anything about segregation or economic inequality. Instead of equity, the current policy discourse is focused on excellence.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama also seems to lack the will to make desegregation a priority. As Nikole Hannah-Jones observes, "The Obama administration, while saying integration is important, offers almost no incentives that would entice school districts to increase it." Rather, Obama has prioritized "choice" mechanisms and charter schools. But charter schools nationwide are even more segregated than public schools at this point.

At heart, the issue of desegregation is about self-determination and resources, not psychology. Black students don't need to sit next to white students in order to learn, but they do need small class sizes, qualified and experienced teachers, and the kinds of rich and stimulating curricula that are often found on the other side of often creatively drawn district lines which they are not allowed to cross.

The families that have been historically oppressed in America deserve the power to shape the structure and nature of schooling for their children. Any utopian scheme imposed on them will not change the fundamental balance of power. Only a genuine movement of parents, teachers, and students can wrest the kind of redistribution of resources that we deserve.

The history of the struggle for desegregated schooling shows that the challenges of destroying racism's many structures. The fight to desegregate Jim Crow schools ran up against the government's racist housing policies and the shifting patterns of industrial development. The institutions of racism are so bound up with the economic system that the one cannot be unwound while leaving the other intact.

Thus, there can be no genuine long-term solutions for Black education without addressing Black unemployment, the prison-industrial complex, environmental racism and the housing crisis.

Further Reading

From the archives