Study Guide

After Brown v. Board

  • Slow implementation of school desegregation after Brown led Supreme Court to impose more specific requirements on school districts
  • In Green v. School Board of New Kent County, Supreme Court ruled that school districts have an "affirmative obligation" to integrate schools
  • During 1970s, Court began ordering school districts to redraw school attendance boundaries and create busing programs to integrate schools

The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was the crowning episode in a legal campaign that began in Missouri in 1938 and included battles in Texas and Oklahoma. What we often forget is that while Brown marked the culmination of one civil rights battle, it was only the beginning of another long legal process. Having ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment included a guarantee of equal treatment in the area of education, the Supreme Court next had to ensure that state efforts to comply were consistent with the objectives laid out in Brown.

This was no easy task. In the years immediately following Brown, school districts responded in various ways. Some, like those in Prince Edward County, Virginia, simply shut their doors rather than accept integration. Other districts introduced various programs to appease the Court. Some were evasive; others were constructed in good faith. But all in all, by the end of the 1960s, the Court had lost patience with the progress made toward integration and, in a series of decisions, it placed more precise and urgent demands on school districts.

The first of these decisions involved a "freedom of choice" program introduced in Virginia. Schools there offered students the freedom to choose annually the school they would attend. On its face, with its catchy label, the plan seemed a philosophically sound approach to achieving educational equality. But in 1968, in Green v. School Board of New Kent County, the Supreme Court held otherwise. Noting that the freedom to choose could easily result in the perpetuation of traditional attendance patterns, the Court ruled that district integration plans must promise to achieve the actual objective of integration. School integration could not be left to chance, the Court said, and districts must assume an "affirmative obligation" to bring about integrated schools.

All of this set the stage for the development of more ambitious and controversial plans to achieve school integration. Having been told that they must implement policies that achieved, not just made possible, integration, having been told that they were responsible for creating and funding programs aimed at redressing past discriminatory practices, and having been told that the courts would closely monitor their behavior until they were in full compliance with Brown, many districts adopted affirmative action programs aimed at achieving racially balanced schools.