A battle that began early in the 20th century to try to bring equality to the segregated Black schools of the South became, by the 1960s, an all-out attack on the entire structure of racially separate schools in the 17 states which mandated segregation by law. The 1954 Brown decision outlawing de jure segregation was both a key cause of the civil rights movement, announcing that Southern apartheid was unconstitutional and illegitimate, and a principal goal of the movement, beginning a long process of bringing the power of government to bear on the social arrangements of the South. Martin Luther King led demonstrations for integrated education in the North as well as in the South. There were hundreds of protests against unequal conditions and opportunities in segregated schools, and there was almost a decade of struggle in the U.S. Congress about whether or not to cut off federal funds to the thousands of districts that defied the Supreme Court's directive.
The struggle was never just for desegregated schools, nor was it motivated by a desire on the part of Black students to simply sit next to white students. It was an integral part of a much broader movement for racial and economic justice supported by a unique alliance of major civil rights organizations, churches, students, and leaders of both national political parties. From l954 until 1964, the enforcement effort faced almost uniform local and state resistance in the South. A handful of civil rights lawyers, most of them from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, sued local school boards trying to force the initiation of desegregation in courts presided over by conservative federal judges. When President Kennedy asked Congress in 1964 to prohibit discrimination in all programs receiving federal aid, 98% of Southern Blacks were still in totally segregated schools.
The peak of the effort to desegregate the schools came in the late 1960's and early 1970s. The only period in which there was active, positive support by both the courts and the executive branch of the government was the four years following the enactment of the l964 Civil Rights Act. During this period federal education officials, the Department of Justice, and the high courts all maintained strong and reasonably consistent pressure for achieving actual desegregation. During this period desegregation policy was transformed from a very gradual anti-discrimination policy to one of rapid and full integration.
It was in this period that the South moved from almost total racial separation to become the nation's most integrated region. 1 The l968 election that brought Richard Nixon to the White House was a turning point, leading first to a shutdown of the enforcement machinery of the education office, and then to a change of position in which the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to slow down or reverse desegregation requirements. Nixon's appointment of four justices to the U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for key 5-4 decisions against desegregation across city-suburban lines and against equalizing finances among school districts. By l974 it was clear that there was no feasible way to provide desegregated education for millions of Black and Latino children attending heavily minority central city school districts within those rapidly changing city districts.
When education officials moved to revive school desegregation enforcement under the Carter Administration, Congress took the authority away from them, although the Carter Justice Department did initiate a number of important lawsuits, seeking to find ways to win city-suburban desegregation in special circumstances and to coordinate the desegregation of housing with school integration policy.