Remembering Brown v. Board of Education

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision eliminating the separate-but-equal doctrine. This excerpt, from the book All Deliberate Speed, examines the initial resistance by the local, state, and federal governments.

that the “all deliberate speed” language meant “slow” and that the apparent victory was compromised because resisters were allowed to end segregation on their own timetable. These three critical words would indeed turn out to be of great consequence, in that they ignore the urgency on which the Brown lawyers insisted.

Brown

Prior to the oral argument in Brown, the United States had filed an amicus brief stating that Plessy v. Ferguson had been wrongly decided and that if the Court should reach the constitutional question in Brown, Plessy should be overruled. Before the case was reargued, a new Republican administration, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, took office. Though Eisenhower personally contributed to the second government brief in support of desegregation, his position was significantly weaker than the preceding administration’s. Although he said he favored desegregation in principle, he “waffled on when and how it might be accomplished in public schools.” While this did not mark a departure from the government’s prior stance, it significantly decreased the possibility of effective, aggressive desegregation.

Brown II [decided on May 31, 1955, to answer what means should be used to implement the principles announced in the original 1954 Brown decision] provided no judicial guidance on remedies; it merely signaled that southern school boards could move gradually, “with all deliberate speed.” Faced with this instruction, school districts stalled until they were forced to choose one of two options, neither of which welcomed Brown with immediate integration through affirmative measures. The two options approved by lower courts — assignment on the basis of residence and freedom of choice — accompanied the repeal of de jure segregation. Even before residence assignment were struck down by the Court as “inevitably lead[ing] toward segregation,” freedom-of-choice plans emerged as the most common response to Brown. These plans repeatedly failed to yield any significant desegregation. Yet until 1968 they largely survived judicial review because courts interpreted Brown as requiring only that black and white children have the option of attending school together. Representative of this view is a federal district court’s insistence that even after Brown the Constitution “does not require integration, it merely forbids [segregation].” This statement reflects a troublingly narrow reading of Brown, adopted by several current justices, that the constitutional problem at issue was state-sanctioned segregation, not a lack of integration.

Supporters of Brown expected President Eisenhower to back the Brown mandate, because he was certainly the most powerful and commanding white leader and, as president, had the moral authority to influence the public debate on integration. Moreover, Eisenhower was very popular among white business leaders in the South and leaders of the armed forces who would hold the keys to community responses to Brown. Eisenhower, like many whites, considered himself a racially tolerant man and issued a number of presidential decrees in support of desegregation of federal facilities and schools in the District of Columbia. The public view, though, was that these actions were more ceremonial than substantive.

When the Supreme Court issued Brown in May 1954, Eisenhower accepted the decision, as

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