There’s something to be gained from turning an eye to the Black history moments that directly influence every aspect of our lives today. In that spirit, we’re examining the legacy of integration in America, especially as it relates to our education system. Today, we ask the question: A full 58 years after Oliver Brown et al v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, how has school desegregation affected the Black community?
We went to the people who are on the front lines to discuss this issue. On the pro school segregation side, we spoke to Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a research associate for The Civil Rights Project at UCLA’s Initiative on School Integration. On the other side of the discussion—that is, the side that maintains that there are some definite drawbacks to integrating our education system—we tapped Richard T. Ford, George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and the author of Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality.
How did school desegregation following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education impact the African-American community?
Genevieve Siegel-Hawley (PRO): The immediate impact of the Brown decision on the African-American community was difficult to discern. Certainly the ruling was monumental for striking down the “separate but equal” mantra that supported Jim Crow segregation in the South. But the 1955 Brown II decision instructed southern school districts to move forward “with all deliberate speed” in dismantling separate school systems, and the pace was very slow indeed. For over a decade, the South met Brown v. Board with a program of Massive Resistance.
Entire school systems were sometimes shuttered in opposition to the desegregation process, and private “segregation academies” sprang up to offer privileged white families separate educational choices. Spurred onward by both the victory in Brown and the ensuing resistance, the Black community organized. Powerful nonviolent protests helped shed light on apartheid conditions in the South and formed the basis of the Civil Rights Movement. The Black community pursued Brown’s mandate both through grassroots and legal action, with many families volunteering to initiate individual lawsuits against local school districts—despite early, intense white opposition and intimidation—in order to fulfill the promise of Brown.
Richard T. Ford (CON): School desegregation really didn’t start in earnest until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tied federal funding of public schools to desegregation efforts. The ten years between Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act was the era of Massive Resistance, when southern schools did everything they could to avoid desegregation. Once desegregation really got going, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the consequences for African-American communities were mixed. Desegregation typically meant closing Black schools and sending the students to formerly all-white schools. Desegregation meant access to better schools—schools with superior resources and better trained teachers. But it also meant that black schools—including some very good ones—were closed, and Black teachers and administrators laid off. It’s important to remember that these schools were often sources of real and well justified pride in some communities—teachers and principals were respected community leaders, and school was a haven for impressionable young people—a place where racism did not intrude, and where Black role models predominated.