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The Year After 'Brown v. Board of Education'

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

When the US Supreme Court ruled that segregating education was unconstitutional more than half a century ago, the court's work was not complete. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision had another question to answer: how to fix the problem and integrate thousands of school districts across the country. That ruling came one year later in a case often referred to as simply Brown II. NPR's Christopher Johnson has the first of a two-part report on the year between Brown I and Brown II.


The US Supreme Court justices had finally unanimously tipped their hands. On May 17th, 1954, the court gave its opinion about segregation in America's public schools. `Separate educational facilities,' Chief Justice Earl Warren declared, `are inherently unequal.' Afterwards, a CBS reporter found whites ready to express their own opinions about the prospect of sharing classrooms with blacks.

(Soundbites of vintage audio)

Unidentified Man: Well, I feel, as the majority of Southerners do, that this decision is like a cloud coming over our south land.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think that we, as white people, have developed an air of superiority over their race, and I think it would cause for a split in both races if they mix and mingle, because some of them couldn't come up to meet our standards.

JOHNSON: Black students weren't all enthusiastic about sharing integrated classrooms, either.

(Soundbite of vintage audio)

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm pleased that the issue, that segregation, has ended. But for myself, I would not like to attend the schools of the white children because of the fact that we aren't welcome. And I think that the consequence will be a mixture of Negroes and whites, but the consequence will also be an embarrassing situation to the Negro.

JOHNSON: Others, like attorney Thurgood Marshall, were more excited about the NAACP's victory in the Brown case. Juan Williams has written a biography of Marshall, the chief attorney who argued for the plaintiffs.

JUAN WILLIAMS (NPR News): He was literally at the court at the time of the decision. A white attorney from Texas that he knew was there with his son, and Marshall put the kid on his shoulders and they went traipsing around the halls of the Supreme Court. So Thurgood Marshall was thrilled on May 17th, 1954.

JOHNSON: But the celebrations would have to end quickly. Marshall and his team of attorneys understood that the 1954 Brown verdict was, in a way, only a partial decision. The court explained that, because the case involved issues so complex and would be applied so widely, they would deliver two verdicts. First, the court had to decide if the concept of segregated schools was unconstitutional. They all agreed that it was. Then there was the question of remedy. The justices wanted both sides to recommend what role the high court should play in ending racially segregated schools. Those arguments would be made the following spring. Thurgood Marshall, Williams says, began planning for those arguments almost immediately after the first Brown verdict.

WILLIAMS: Marshall had enough sense to say, `There's going to be massive resistance to the Supreme Court decision and we have to be sufficiently wise to anticipate how people are going to try to thwart the power of the Supreme Court ruling.' So that's when Marshall begins to think about how to implement the decision.

JOHNSON: Marshall and the NAACP turned once again to sociologist Kenneth Clark. His research on segregation's psychological impact on black schoolchildren was instrumental in winning the first Brown case. For the next round of arguments, Clark surveyed a mass of data compiled from all over the country. He then wrote a study addressing the Supreme Court's question over whether integration should be ordered at once or gradually. NAACP attorney Jack Greenberg and his legal team expressed Clark's conclusions in the legal briefs they prepared for the Brown II case.

Mr. JACK GREENBERG (NAACP Attorney): We pressed for immediate desegregation, but we were aware of the fact that, even if the court were to order immediate desegregation, it would not be immediate. It would just be quicker if you had an order requiring it to be immediate.

JOHNSON: Juan Williams says Thurgood Marshall and his lawyers were also drafting a second major argument in their push for immediate integration.

WILLIAMS: Now the idea that justice delayed is justice denied--and that's what was happening with these children, because they were being allowed to stay in inferior schools despite the May 17th decision and, therefore, being denied educational opportunity.

JOHNSON: Some schools were desegregating during the summer of 1954. Communities in Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia, Texas and Arkansas began integrating their schools with relative calm. So did Washington, DC's, classrooms and schools in Delaware. Still, much of the segregated South stood in vehement opposition to integrated education. Jack Greenberg recalls arguments from Southern lawyers.

Mr. GREENBERG: They didn't want to desegregate 'cause blacks had venereal disease and all sorts of other medical problems. Other schools would argue that blacks could not function as well as whites in classes, that they weren't as smart and couldn't perform as well in school.

JOHNSON: In mid-April 1955, lawyers for both sides delivered their arguments. The NAACP pressed for prompt desegregation. Defense lawyers fought back with reasons why integrated education must not and would not become reality. On May 31st, the Supreme Court delivered a carefully measured opinion. The justices struck a balance between upholding the idea education should be integrated and, on the other hand, allowing the school districts themselves to set their own timetables. That balance turned on one key phrase: `with all deliberate speed.' Attorney Jack Greenberg was troubled by the way that phrase prescribed the pace of school desegregation.

Mr. GREENBERG: Because `deliberate' means slow and `speed' means fast, and so that was an oxymoron. A lot of people in the South, particularly, took that phrase to mean they could take their own sweet time going about it and, in fact, really didn't have to do anything.

JOHNSON: Derrick Bell is a professor at New York University's School of Law. He's written extensively about the legal history of Brown vs. the Board of Education. He has his own assessment of the two verdicts.

Professor DERRICK BELL (New York University School of Law): There was a half-light there, the kind just before dawn, that sense of hopefulness that Brown I provided and that was pretty much dimmed out by Brown II.

JOHNSON: Bell says the second Brown verdict proved the law's limitations in wiping out centuries-old segregation in America. Thurgood Marshall had another complaint about the decision. Juan Williams says the attorney viewed Brown II as a sign that the high court had succumbed to concerns over unrest that might erupt if it ordered immediate desegregation.

WILLIAMS: So he's angry. And, in fact, he holds this notion in his heart that if you were talking about the children of any other racial background but black children, there would have been no notion of `all deliberate speed.' The promise of Brown would have been delivered to people who had been denied their rights immediately.

JOHNSON: But Marshall and the NAACP resolved to continue their project, schoolhouse by schoolhouse if they had to, in order to win black Americans access to equal education under the law.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News, Los Angeles.

GORDON: Tomorrow, a look at resegregation at Birmingham, Alabama's, Central Park Elementary School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Johnson