In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, overturning the decades-old "separate but equal" doctrine established by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and, in theory, eliminating segregated public schools. But what some heralded as a civil rights victory, others perceived as a threat to a segregated way of life. In 1955, sensing white resistance to desegregated schools, the Court ruled in Brown II that school boards must act "with all deliberate speed."
Although the Supreme Court had the power to interpret the law, the power to enforce it was left to the states. The majority of southern states refused to comply with the Court's ruling. In 1956, just as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, 100 southern congressmen signed the Southern Manifesto, charging the federal government with infringing on states' rights, and pledging to resist and reverse the Brown ruling. Parents continued to have to rely on lawsuits to force their local school boards to desegregate.
In 1957, James Armstrong joined eight other black parents in filing a class action lawsuit against the Birmingham Board of Education to desegregate the public schools. Their actions were risky. The Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary group known for its terrorist tactics against African Americans, maintained a large presence in Alabama and had influential ties to city and state officials.
Armstrong v. Birmingham Board of Education moved slowly through the courts until the summer of 1963, when the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that Birmingham's schools be integrated. Birmingham's schools were desegregated that fall when Armstrong enrolled his two sons in Graymont Elementary School, but change didn't happen overnight. Alabama governor George Wallace tried to close the schools and issued an executive order prohibiting integrated schools; angry white parents protested; and the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.
Instead of witnessing integration, Birmingham witnessed "white flight," the departure of white families from the city's public schools and the creation of private schools that were beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. Moreover, the school board failed to enforce desegregation. By 1967, 13 years after the Brown decision, very little had changed in Birmingham. The vast majority of African Americans in Birmingham still attended all- or nearly all-black schools with the same inferior conditions that led to the Brown case.
Several black parents filed another class action lawsuit to challenge Birmingham's segregated schools. The case, United States of America and Linda Stout, by her father Blevin Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education combined nine school desegregation appeals throughout the South that were decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and reaffirmed on March 29, 1967. The court ordered that school boards take "affirmative action to disestablish all school segregation and to eliminate the effects of the dual school system." The court's opinion reiterated both Brown and Brown II, but unlike those rulings, it specified a time frame, beginning on May 1, and a detailed implementation plan.
The Jefferson County desegregation mandate was issued in direct response to the federal court order, which also spelled out how it should be publicized and mailed. In fact, the court drafted the mandate; Superintendent Kermit A. Johnson, considered a civil rights moderate, simply signed and distributed it. The mandate reflects one of the earliest affirmative action plans that specified how a school board should implement desegregation.
Why do you think it took twelve years after the Brown decision to desegregate the Jefferson County Schools?
What criteria might students and their parents have used to choose a school to attend after desegregation went into affect?
Do you think the system for desegregation described in the letter would be effective? Why or why not?
What do you think parents, teachers, and students might have done to make desegregation work better?