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.

When the Brown decision overturned Plessy, most communities decided to wait and see what the decision really meant.

In fact, the southern segregated school system remained almost completely segregated for a full decade after Brown. By 1964, only one-fiftieth of all southern black children attended integrated schools. In the North, many school districts refused to provide racial data that could be used to measure segregation; northern segregation remained unaffected until the mid-1970s. Some states, such as North Carolina, practiced token integration and positioned themselves to be somewhat conciliatory, thereby escaping judicial scrutiny of their public educational systems and actually experiencing less integration than those states that more fiercely resisted integration.

From the White House to the city councils of the smallest towns, those in power found ways to either subtly defer or defiantly oppose desegregation. Thus the words “all deliberate speed” effectively lost their meaning. Several states — namely Alabama, Virginia, and Georgia — tried to deactivate the Brown II order by passing laws that forbade local authorities to desegregate, whether or not it was in compliance with a federal injunction.

Similarly, Governor Faubus of Arkansas chose the segregation issue as the cornerstone of his campaign for a third term. And on September 3, 1957, he called out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. When a federal district judge enjoined Faubus from keeping the black students from attending, Faubus sent the troops away and left the students to deal with the angry mob alone. President Eisenhower ultimately intervened, sending in army troops and federalized Arkansas National Guardsmen to protect the students, who finally attended a full day of classes on September 23.

The Little Rock school board reacted by stating that the disorder proved that desegregation had to be delayed further. This led to litigation, spearheaded by Thurgood Marshall, that turned into the landmark case of Cooper v. Aaron.

The Brown strategy was challenged, on the one hand, by officials in the executive and legislative branches who thought that the effort to desegregate the schools was moving too quickly and, on the other, by civil rights leaders who regarded the progress as far too slow. Thurgood Marshall would soon realize that the Brown strategy was not only vulnerable to attacks in the courts but also subject to questioning by the African-American community. While Marshall continued to press for legal reform, an effort was under way to fight segregation through political channels — an effort led by a Morehouse College-educated minister from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr.

Excerpted from All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education, by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. Copyright © 2004 by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

The face behind the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision striking down the separate-but-equal laws that were the legal basis for school segregation in this country in the case Brown v. Board of Education was a little girl named Linda Brown. As a 7-year-old growing up

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