The Supreme Court and the struggle

August 31, 2012

Lee Sustar looks at the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision--and the long struggle to come before legal school segregation finally came to an end.

EVERY TIME an election rolls around, supporters of the Democratic Party roll out their argument of voting for their candidate to stop the Republicans from stacking the U.S. Supreme Court with conservative justices. "Maybe electing a Democrat won't change everything for the better," the argument goes, "But a Democrat would never appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who have the power to make right-wing rulings for the rest of their lives."

To support their argument, liberals often cite the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., in which the Supreme Court struck down the Jim Crow law calling for "separate but equal" school systems for whites and Blacks.

Even though the Chief Justice during the Brown decision, Earl Warren, was an appointee of the conservative Republican Eisenhower administration, the 1954 ruling apparently "proves" that the Supreme Court has the power to make reforms, over the opposition of presidents and Congress.

But a closer examination of the Brown ruling shows the problem with this argument.

The History of Black America

Far from being a proponent of the civil rights movement, the Warren court was chiefly concerned about the public image of the U.S. government. The U.S., trying to influence the newly independent regimes of Africa and Asia, was constantly embarrassed by the Southern segregationists who attacked even moderate civil rights leaders. Moreover, political leaders hoped the Brown decision would appease Black militants active in such groups as the National Negro Labor Council and in anti-Jim Crow coalitions organized around Southern churches.

Yet it was a charade. Although the Brown decision ordered the dismantling of "separate but equal" facilities, the federal government did nothing to implement the order. President Eisenhower opposed the ruling, and left responsibility for enforcing it to the Southern states that fiercely opposed it.

A year after the decision, the Supreme Court itself provided the means for Southern racism to drag its feet. In a ruling that ordered desegregation "with all deliberate speed," the justices added, "Full implementation of these constitutional principles may require the solution of varied local school problems. School authorities have the primary responsibility for elucidating, assessing, and solving these problems."

The Court turned responsibility for overseeing desegregation over to local governments and local federal courts--two institutions which had upheld the Jim Crow school system for years.


THE FRUITS of the "local" approach were seen in an Arkansas state court decision in 1957 to block the city of Little Rock 's school desegregation plan.

Although a federal court overturned the decision, Gov. Orval E. Faubus, a supposed "moderate" from the Dixiecrat wing of the party, ordered out Arkansas National Guard troops to enforce the state court's decision--by stopping nine Black students from enrolling in a previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. With a racist mob following them, soldiers chased the students away from the school.

Eisenhower, faced with the first state to militarily defy the federal government since the Civil War, remained sympathetic to the segregationists. "You cannot change people's hearts merely by laws," he told a press conference the week of the Little Rock confrontation. He understood, he said, the Southern whites concern "for the mongrelization of the race."

In negotiations with Faubus, he convinced the Arkansas governor to withdraw the National Guard. But the next day, a racist mob of over 1,000 people took the Guard's place and surrounded the school.

Eisenhower was forced to back up the authority of national law by federalizing the Arkansas Guard and sending U.S. army troops to Little Rock to disperse the racist mob at bayonet point. Not to do so, he told a southern senator, would have been "tantamount to acquiescing to anarchy and the dissolution of the union." The schools remained closed for the year, and Blacks did not attend until August 1959.

The Little Rock struggle is remembered for the immense courage of the young Black students and their families who endured abuse and violence to make sure the Brown decision didn't remain on paper only.

But it also showed how slow the pace of desegregation would be unless further action was taken. By 1964--a full decade after the Brown decision, only 1.2 percent of all Black pupils in Southern states attended racially integrated schools. In Alabama, only 21 Black children went to integrated schools; in South Carolina, only 10; and in Mississippi, not a single Black student went to school with white students.

Even the Supreme Court admitted its failure in 1964 when it said, "There has been entirely too much deliberation and not enough speed in enforcing the constitutional rights which we held in Brown v. Board of Education."

This comment came in reference to another case, Griffen v. (Prince Edward County. Va.) School Board. Prince Edward County was, in fact, a new name for the Allen v. County School Board, one of the four desegregation suits consolidated in the Brown case in 1951. Ten years after a Supreme Court order to dismantle its racist school system. Prince Edward County had done nothing at all to comply.

Jim Crow school systems--whether created by law in the South or by racist housing discrimination--persisted until the Black rebellions of the middle and late 1960s forced the federal government, led from 1969 on by the conservative Republican Nixon administration, to withhold funds from Southern districts that refused to comply with the Brown decision. Even so, violent racist opposition to school desegregation continued into the 1970s, including in Northern cities such as Boston.

Legally segregated school districts were finally destroyed--but only after the explosion of a militant Black movement, starting with the civil rights struggle in the South and expanding nationally with the Black Power movement.

Far from leading the struggle for civil rights, the Supreme Court's Brown decision accomplished little on its own--while Southern racists clung to Jim Crow laws for another decade.

First published in the October 1986 issue of Socialist Worker.

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