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.

he was bound to, but did not endorse it. Publicly he stated, “The Supreme Court has spoken, and I am sworn to uphold their — the constitutional processes in this country, and I am trying. I will obey.” Privately, however, he stated that the Court’s decision had set race relations progress back 15 years and that desegregation could lead to social disintegration. Indeed, though the segregationists who were opposed to Brown made their voices heard on the floor of Congress, on national television, and in public forums, the president did not respond. Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia coined the phrase “massive resistance,” and 90% of the congressional delegation from the South signed a “Southern Manifesto,” denouncing Brown as a “clear abuse of judicial power” and vowing to reverse it by using “all lawful means” at their disposal.

Senator Strom Thurmond, meanwhile, called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren and other members of the Court. When Eisenhower did speak out, he emphasized that integration should happen slowly. His position thus made it app
ear that any school district or judge calling for an expeditious implementation of Brown was taking an extremist stand.

During the oral arguments in the Brown cases, Thurgood Marshall continually asserted that if any unyielding Supreme Court issued a stern decree, and if the executive branch supported it, the American people would follow, and desegregation would occur without major social upheaval. The unfortunate reality was that the Court did not issue a stern decree and that there was no immediate executive enforcement. In the Brown II decision, issued on May 31, 1955, the Court refused to grant the petitioner’s request that all schools be enjoined to desegregate immediately. It instead took a cautious approach — perhaps it knew that it would not have the backing of the Eisenhower administration or Congress to effectuate a swift and stern mandate. Neither of the other two branches of the federal government had expressed much enthusiasm for actions that would support or enforce the Court’s order. Thus, the Court sent the school desegregation cases back to the federal district courts with directions to desegregate the schools “with all deliberate speed.”

In the 11 states of the Deep South, the judges had the job of forcing compliance on unwilling school boards. Because President Eisenhower followed a policy of nonintervention on desegregation, the judges were less likely to act. Though the federal judges may have been politically insulated by lifetime appointments, they were still fearful of taking what could be perceived as an aggressive stance on integration, especially without the full backing of the federal government. Thus, if a judge could imagine a legitimate reason to delay, he would delay; in this way, “the most recalcitrant judge and the most defiant school board were allowed to set the pace.”

In the absence of strong leadership by the federal government, local officials did their best to thwart court orders of desegregation. They rushed to build schools before Brown came down to ensure that, while segregated, they were “equal.”

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