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Supreme Court's hair-pin turns on the road to desegregation

By Kevin Drew

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CNN's Dan Lothian looks back at the pivotal Supreme Court ruling that forced the integration of U.S. public schools and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. (May 15)
• Explainer: A landmark ruling
• Timeline: School segregation
• Chart gallery: Race and schools
• CNN Presents: 50 years later
• CNN Presents: Educator guide
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Civil Rights

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court's winding path of rulings on schools and segregation begins with its historic 1954 Brown v. Board ruling.

The high court has traveled from its activist role supporting government-enforced segregation to laissez-faire interpretations that allow demographic changes in effect to result in the resegregation of public schools, legal analysts and civil rights experts say.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court said "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." It followed that decision with another ruling a year later -- widely called "Brown II" -- that called on segregated school districts to desegregate "with all deliberate speed."

"Brown I was the policy statement, and Brown II was the remedy," explained Dave Douglas, professor at the College of William and Mary's School of Law.

"Did Brown simply mean you had to stop segregating children, or did it mean a more activist program was needed?" said Douglas, who also is director of Institute of Bill of Rights Law.

Several Supreme Court decisions followed, Douglas said, that shaped policy for U.S. school districts.

The 1958 Cooper ruling was a case out of Arkansas that followed the 1957-58 civil strife after black students were admitted to a Little Rock High School. In its ruling, the Supreme Court said school districts could not use fear of public unrest as an excuse to remain segregated.

Ten years later came the 1968 Green case out of Kentucky. The ruling from that case laid out five factors to be used to evaluate whether a school district had desegregated. The high court identified five factors -- facilities, staff, faculty, extracurricular activities and transportation -- to be used to measure a school system's compliance with the mandate of Brown.

The Green ruling, made four years after passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, exemplified how justices can be influenced by the nation's political climate. The case was argued during a peak of social unrest in the country. One day after arguments were made, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A month later, the court issued its decision.

After the Green decision, the pace of desegregation picked up across the country. Names of black schools were changed to remove the racial identifier.

Other decisions continued to define desegregation. The 1971 Swann case from North Carolina approved various tools, such as busing and magnet schools, as integration remedies in urban areas.

By 1972, 73 percent of African-American students across the United States attended integrated schools, compared with 17 percent in 1967.

But a 1974 case from the Detroit metro area "slammed the door shut," Douglas said, on attempts to desegregate Northern urban areas. The high court ruled that rearranging residential patterns -- which evolved from free choice -- was too complicated.

The bottom line from that 1974 Milliken ruling: Cross-district busing would not be allowed, Douglas said.

Other decisions in the 1970s and '80s continued to define the reach and limits of desegregation plans.

Then came the 1991 Supreme Court case, Oklahoma City v. Dowell -- considered as much of a landmark ruling in the desegregation saga as the 1954 Brown and 1968 Green rulings, Douglas said.

The justices said court-ordered plans were not intended "to operate in perpetuity," and allowed districts to be released from desegregation obligations once fulfilled . As a result, districts were allowed to return to neighborhood schools.

The 1991 ruling came from a growing political movement in the 1980s to end forced busing, said Harvard's Gary Orfield.

Other rulings, a 1995 case in Missouri and a 2001 case from North Carolina, clarify and ease the return of schools to local control.

As a result according to Douglas, resegregation has been legitimized by the high court.

The message of the current court, headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is clear, Douglas said.

"Brown does not mandate integrated schools," Douglas said. "Instead, Brown mandates no segregated schools. Segregation may be chosen by residential patterns."

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