In 1971 William Rehnquist faced a bruising confirmation hearing for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Seventeen years earlier, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court had ruled that state-sponsored segregation of schools was unconstitutional. But in 1952, as a clerk for Justice Robert Jackson, Rehnquist had written a memo defending the separate-but-equal doctrine that Brown overturned. “I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by ‘liberal’ colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed,” Rehnquist wrote.
At his 1971 hearing and again in 1986, when he was nominated for chief justice, Rehnquist insisted that the memo was meant to reflect Jackson’s opinion rather than his own. The claim was “incredible on its face,” as Jackson’s former secretary told reporters, and almost surely false. But the outcry against the memo—and Rehnquist’s need to distance himself from it at two different confirmation hearings—spoke to the powerful bipartisan consensus around Brown v. Board of Education. It had become a sacred text in our civic religion, joining the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of the documents defining the nation itself. No matter from what party or race or religion, it seemed, Americans knelt at the altar of Brown.
That may no longer be true. At their confirmation hearings this spring, two of President Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships refused to say whether they believed Brown was correctly decided. Wendy Vitter and Andrew Oldham both told the Senate Judiciary Committee that it would be inappropriate for them to express personal opinions about the case, even though Rehnquist and a long line of other nominees had done precisely that; as recently as 2006, Samuel Alito (for whom Oldham later clerked) said in his confirmation hearing that Brown was “one of the greatest, if not the single greatest thing that the Supreme Court of the United States has ever done.” Whatever he actually believed, Rehnquist couldn’t get confirmed to the Court without confirming his personal support for Brown. That doesn’t seem to be a job requirement for Vitter and Oldham.
It’s tempting to ascribe this changing standard to the resurgence of white racism in the Trump years, when formerly tabooed bigotries have received a new lease on life. But it’s also too simple. As the law professor Justin Driver notes in The Schoolhouse Gate, his history of the Supreme Court and education, “a tepid appetite for genuine racial integration in education” permeates our entire culture. Although races are no longer separated by law in our schools, the schools are more segregated than at any time since Brown.
There is little sustained effort to change that. In higher education, we have large initiatives and interest groups devoted to enhancing the “diversity” of the student body. That’s not the case for our elementary and secondary schools, where most reform activity has focused on improving student achievement—especially among underserved poor and minority children—rather than on bringing students of different backgrounds into the same classrooms. Outside of the openly racist fringe, you won’t find anyone who thinks that present-day segregation is a positive thing. But neither will you find many politicians—Democratic or Republican—who have embraced broad-scale measures to reverse the trend. We have reached an odd moment of negative consensus: nobody likes school segregation, but almost nobody is deeply invested in challenging it, either.
So this is a good moment to look backward, at the measures that formerly mandated segregation and the people who fought to remove them. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia had compulsory school segregation laws in 1954, part of a vast system of legal apartheid extending from Delaware to Texas. Reflecting the overall trend toward “history from the bottom up,” recent scholarship about the struggle against Jim Crow has examined the domestic workers, college students, and labor organizers who desegregated buses, water fountains, and lunch counters. But our stories about challenges to school segregation laws remain dominated by…lawyers. Thurgood Marshall looms largest of all, of course, as the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund and its chief counsel in Brown; next comes his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, whom Marshall credited with laying the strategic groundwork for Brown. But we know much less about the thousands of African-Americans who put their bodies on the line by defying segregation in our schools.
That’s probably because so many of those bodies were female. As Rachel Devlin reminds us in her fascinating book A Girl Stands at the Door, a large majority of the young people who initially desegregated Jim Crow schools were young women. Many Americans would recognize the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford being vilified by a white mob outside of Little Rock Central High School or the Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges being escorted by federal marshals into an elementary school in New Orleans. But Devlin is the first historian to demonstrate that, collectively, girls were the vanguard of the struggle against Jim Crow in education. The Little Rock Nine included six girls and three boys; in New Orleans, all four of the children entering all-white primary schools were female; and up the road in Baton Rouge, twenty-two girls and six boys desegregated local high schools.
Unlike campaigns to eliminate Jim Crow in transportation and accommodations, which typically ended when the laws changed, school desegregation was a continuous project; it required its pioneers not simply to make a singular and dramatic gesture, like a sit-in at a restaurant, but to embed themselves in a new institution. So it exposed them to continued harassment and violence in ways that other civil rights efforts rarely did. Whites pushed black students down stairs, shouted slurs at them in hallways, ostracized them in cafeterias, and left death threats in their lockers. When John F. Kennedy was murdered in 1963, white students in Baton Rouge formed a circle around the handful of blacks at their school and chanted, “We killed Lincoln, we killed Kennedy, and we’ll kill anyone else who tries to help N—s.”
Any African-American who desegregated a school encountered ritual cruelty and hostility. But black girls were even more likely than black boys to be abused by white racists, who saw them as weaker and more vulnerable than their male counterparts. Actually, Devlin argues, the girls were better equipped to absorb desegregation’s mental blows, and less likely to be targeted by its physical ones. Many of these young women had been brought up to be “nice girls,” as they described themselves. That meant dressing in conservative outfits, eschewing slang and expletives, and—most of all—displaying poise and decorum in every interaction. So they were also more able to perform the “social high-wire act” (in Devlin’s clever phrase) that desegregation demanded, keeping quiet at crucial moments and speaking up at others.
The most complicated tests came when white education officials—as part of the desegregation process—asked young black applicants to all-white schools if they really wanted to leave their segregated schools for integrated ones. If they said no, they would harm the larger campaign against Jim Crow in the schools; but if they said yes, they risked charges of betrayal from African-Americans. Indeed, many of the pioneering girls in Devlin’s story reported painful insults from blacks, not just whites. Some African-Americans charged that the girls thought they were “too good” to attend schools with people of their own kind; others accused them of trying to be “white.” Black principals sometimes pressed high-achieving girls to stay in their segregated schools, which would suffer academically if they departed. For African-Americans, Devlin notes, desegregation generated feelings of pride and accomplishment, but also “a sense of loss” for what was left behind.
That sense saturates Vanessa Siddle Walker’s book, from its plaintive title—The Lost Education of Horace Tate—to its final pages. To Walker, the “hidden heroes” of the desegregation story aren’t young black girls like Elizabeth Eckford but adult black educators like Horace Tate, a principal at several all-black schools in Georgia and president of the state’s black teachers association. Working behind the scenes, African-American educators bargained with white officials to get more services and facilities for segregated black institutions. Meanwhile, they secretly coordinated with Marshall and other NAACP lawyers to challenge segregation itself.
Indeed, in Walker’s tale, the educators—not the lawyers—were the critical figures in shifting the NAACP’s goals from the equalization of resources to the desegregation of schools. Black educators lived in black communities; they bore daily witness to the deprivations and humiliations of Jim Crow; so they were especially aware that separate could never be equal. Like the girls in Devlin’s book, black principals placed their lives and livelihoods on the line: Tate was fired several times by white school officials, and a house he was renting was burned to the ground. But they bravely pressed on for “justice in schools,” Walker writes, insisting that black children deserved the same educational opportunities as anyone else in the United States.
They never got them, of course. Black schools were closed, leading to the dismissal of thousands of African-American teachers and principals; and black children were bussed to formerly all-white schools, which were sometimes inferior to the ones they had left. Thanks to energetic fund-raising campaigns in African-American communities, some segregated black schools boasted facilities that put white schools to shame. And even when black schools lacked textbooks and other essentials, Walker claims, dedicated educators like Tate transformed them into truly educational institutions. At the schools he led, Tate knew every child by name. More than that, though, he knew how to “motivate the deprived child,” to quote one of the speakers at Tate’s teacher conventions.
The white schools where black children were sent could not—or would not—do that. Integration was not the “two-way street” that civil rights warriors like Marshall had imagined; instead, it continued or even exacerbated black oppression. “All change is not progress,” Tate told Georgia’s black teachers association in 1967. “We are facing a new kind of slavery.” Three years later, Tate asserted that the “second-class integration” suffered by blacks after Brown was “more evil than was segregation.”
Walker takes Tate’s assertions at face value, declaring that desegregation was “hijacked” by whites “to maintain old practices of subordination.” But she pays almost no attention to blacks who continued to support the integration project even after Tate had dismissed it as a ruse and a sham. Walker devotes dozens of pages to the merger between the black teachers association and the historically white Georgia Education Association (GEA), which Tate feared would ignore African-American interests: whereas the GEA supported the equalization of black and white teacher salaries, for example, it said almost nothing about the continued overcrowding and poor funding of majority-black schools. Tate invited Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to the black teachers’ final meeting, in 1970, where Powell pleaded with them to maintain their independence. “Nobody but a damned fool walks into an organization where they are immediately outvoted three to one,” Powell declared. But by a vote of 318 to 101 the black teachers association decided to dissolve itself and join the GEA.
Like Tate, Walker regards that decision as both a strategic mistake and a moral betrayal. But she never asks why so many African-Americans disagreed with Tate, or why they were willing to act in ways that she sees as harmful to black education. The post-Brown integration schemes of the 1960s were highly unequal, requiring black teachers and students to bear an inordinate burden. But it was a burden that many blacks willingly assumed, because they believed that integration—however unfairly implemented—would yield better education for them.
They also received a boost from the federal judiciary, which had done little in the decade after Brown to spur desegregation beyond the notoriously imprecise instruction that it occur with “all deliberate speed.” But in 1971 the Supreme Court’s Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision required districts that had segregated students by law to create system-wide plans for racial balance in schools. The ruling triggered protests against bussing among whites, who balked at being assigned to schools outside their neighborhoods. But few of these critics had objected to bussing when it sent black children like Linda Brown—the daughter of the lead plaintiffs in Brown—to segregated schools far from their homes. Court-ordered plans helped make schools in the South more integrated than those in the North, surely one of the great ironies of modern United States history.
The involvement of the courts is recounted in vivid detail by Justin Driver, who sets out to rescue them from the purgatory to which critics across the political spectrum have consigned them. Conservatives charge that the courts have engaged in “judicial activism” for progressive change, while frustrated liberals indict them for failing to promote it. The leading figure in the latter movement is the law professor Derrick Bell, who insists that the judicial branch has not and cannot yield justice for African-Americans. Channeling his inner Rehnquist, perhaps, Bell has even suggested that the Supreme Court should have affirmed Plessy v. Ferguson in the Brown decision; that way, black students who continue to attend segregated schools might have a better chance of obtaining equal funds and services.
Most liberal critics of the Court don’t go that far. But they warn that we should never expect the judiciary to outpace legislatures and the broader public, which are the real engines of change in the United States. To Driver, the record is much more mixed than that: sometimes courts have lagged behind the rest of the country, but at other moments they have taken the lead. And they have helped expand the rights of American children, albeit unevenly and imperfectly. In a way, then, Driver aims to breathe new life into the old lawyer-driven narrative. Courts and attorneys might not be as crucial as earlier generations imagined in their paeans to Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston. But if you look at the long record of judicial intervention on matters of education, you see that the courts still matter for young Americans.
Unfortunately, Driver is on firmer ground for that claim when he looks at issues other than race. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s intercession, students no longer have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, schools cannot conduct prayers, they cannot prohibit students from expressing political opinions, and they cannot suspend or expel students without providing a hearing. But what has the Court done to further the cause of racial justice and equality? The 1971 decision in Swann and subsequent rulings allowed federal remedies to overturn de jure segregation—that is, segregation by law—but blocked similar remedies in cases of de facto segregation, or segregation by fact. The distinction was a fallacy, ignoring the way that federal housing policy and many other governmental actions had structured segregation in the North; as James Baldwin famously observed, de facto meant that segregation happened but nobody did it.
And three years after Swann, in the pivotal Milliken v. Bradley case, the Court struck down metropolitan-wide plans to integrate urban school districts with adjoining suburban ones. The decision drew a stinging dissent from Marshall, who had joined the Court a decade earlier but had grown despondent over its unwillingness to address race. “Our nation…will be ill served by the Court’s refusal to remedy separate and unequal education,” Marshall wrote, “for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”
Civil rights leaders echoed Marshall, warning that Milliken would reinforce the growing divide between poor black urban residents and wealthier white suburbanites. But the ruling also exposed age-old tensions among African-Americans, who were never as united on school integration as we sometimes imagine. To adherents of “Black Power,” especially, efforts to mix African-American children with whites reflected a racist assumption that black schools—and blacks, period—were inferior. That argument inverted the logic of Brown, which argued that segregating black children by race harmed their self-image. And it found a receptive audience among black conservatives like Clarence Thomas, who replaced Marshall on the Supreme Court in 1991 as its lone African-American justice. “‘Racial isolation’ itself is not a harm; only state-enforced segregation is,” wrote Thomas, who had hung a poster of Malcolm X on his wall in college. “After all, if separation itself is a harm, and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education, then there must be something inferior about blacks.”
As Thomas and other Republican nominees joined the Supreme Court, it backed away from its already limited commitment to school integration. The predictable result has been a resegregation of districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where schools quickly reverted to reflect the racial composition of the neighborhoods where they were located. Most recently, in the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 ruling of 2007, the Supreme Court struck down district integration plans that used race as a factor in assigning students to schools; according to Chief Justice John Roberts, that was no more constitutional than segregating them. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts intoned. In the end, he concluded, the case came down to a debate over “the heritage of Brown.” Did it simply prohibit the state-mandated segregation of children in schools? Or did it also require schools to take affirmative measures to integrate?
Most of all, what is the value of having students of different backgrounds in the same classrooms? Who benefits when that happens, and who loses? Those aren’t simply legal questions; they’re also historical ones. The way we tell the story of school integration will have enormous bearing upon its future. Consider the term “bussing,” which has become political kryptonite almost everywhere. In a recent interview, for example, New York mayor Bill de Blasio bemoaned racial segregation in the city but warned against efforts to transport children to schools outside their neighborhoods. In Boston, where the mayor grew up, bussing “absolutely poisoned the well,” he maintained. “I think history is on my side here,” he added. Actually, it isn’t. Although the mayor is right about Boston, he’s wrong to invoke that singular and deeply contentious episode as representative of the whole country. As Driver reminds us, a 1981 Harris poll found that 87 percent of the parents of children who were bussed to promote integration viewed the experience as either “very satisfactory” (54 percent) or “partially satisfactory” (33 percent); only 11 percent said it was unsatisfactory.
Nor should we suppose that the larger project of desegregation was a traumatic setback for African-Americans, as Walker sometimes implies. Surely it led to some hugely unjust outcomes, especially the dismissal of qualified and effective black educators. But as one of the female pioneers in Devlin’s story warns, it’s “ahistorical” to imagine that black education before Brown was a bed of roses; despite some exceptional schools and teachers, most black Americans were stuck in “inferior kinds of spaces.” That’s why so many courageous African-Americans—including adolescent girls, veteran educators, and civil rights lawyers—challenged school segregation in the first place.
To borrow from Adam Clayton Powell, nobody but a fool would assert that they won the full equality they sought. But only a cynic would claim that our current racial order is as cruel, violent, and inequitable as the one that came before it. And only a nostalgist would pretend that perhaps state-sponsored segregation wasn’t so bad after all. That distorts the memory of the brave people who fought it, and it blinds us to the real task that lies ahead. As another one of Devlin’s pioneering women tells her, segregated schools “are not good for kids.” We know this, in our bones: separate cannot be equal. We just don’t have the will to change it.