The Unfinished Business of School Desegregation
by Adina Back on Jun 22, 2004
The 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education has come and gone. But in celebrating its achievements we have once again omitted an important chapter in this nation’s flawed story of desegregation: the resistance since 1954 to integration by Northern public schools despite many challenges by parents and civil rights activists.
The understandable tendency to wax nostalgic about the Brown ruling perpetuates a dangerous myth about race relations outside the South. Northern parents demanding educational equality have been challenging that myth decade after decade.
In New York City, for example, the current generation of parent activists brought a lawsuit in 1995 through the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that charged the state with shortchanging New York City’s students, 85 percent of whom are students of color. New York’s highest court has given Gov. George E. Pataki until the end of July to devise a plan for leveling that inequality.
If Pataki and his fellow governors and legislators throughout the country intend to do more than pay lip service to the idea of racial equality, they’ll be well served to look at previous battles for equal, quality public school education outside the South. They’ll find that seriously inadequate public education for Northern children of color is an old problem and that parents do not stop fighting when it comes to their children’s education. Children’s real needs for good schools is an issue that will not go away.
The prominent African-American psychologist Kenneth Clark knew this when, in February 1954, three months before the Supreme Court delivered its decision in Brown, he publicly charged the New York City public schools with giving inferior and unequal education to the city’s African-American schoolchildren. What Clark was criticizing was the continued impact of de facto segregation — that is, segregation by custom — in the North.
He was hardly the first to raise the issue of segregated schooling outside the South. For decades, parents and activists waged a series of grassroots and legal challenges to Northern-style segregation. The 1954 Supreme Court decision legitimized and fueled these campaigns. Dozens of campaigns for school integration were waged in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles and scores of other cities outside the South.
In 1958, for example, one year after the Little Rock Nine bravely integrated Central High School, the Harlem Nine staged a school boycott in New York City to protest the inferior conditions in their children’s segregated schools. The state Domestic Relations Court judge, Justine Polier, ruled in favor of the parents.
The African-American community hailed Polier’s ruling as the first northern decision against de facto segregation in the public schools. Civil rights activists applauded her recognition that Harlem junior high school children were in fact receiving “inferior educational opportunities in those schools by reason of racial discrimination.”
Polier was unusual in her willingness to address head-on the structural causes of racial inequality in the North. Most judges hearing similar cases over the next decade ruled against local integration efforts. In Gary, Indiana, for example, when NAACP attorneys in 1963 argued that the school board intentionally maintained its segregated school system by skewing attendance boundary lines, U.S. District Judge George Beamer ruled against them.
As civil rights activists discovered, naming race — and racism — as a Northern problem met with great resistance. In the early 1960s, the NAACP made public a list of 23 communities, from Connecticut to California, where segregated schooling had either been actively endorsed through gerrymandering or passively upheld through the inaction of school boards. It was hardly surprising that the list of northern communities with de facto segregation grew dramatically over the next decade, as did the number of cases that the NAACP took to court — and lost.
The NAACP’S rare legal victories were tied up in court for so long that whole generations of schoolchildren were neglected. This was the case in Milwaukee, where attorney and NAACP activist Lloyd Barbee, representing 41 African-American parents, filed a federal lawsuit in 1965 that charged the school board with practicing racial discrimination. Barbee spent the next ten years building the case and documenting the detrimental impact of school segregation in Milwaukee before Judge John Reynolds finally ruled in 1976 that the Milwaukee public schools must desegregate.
This handful of hard-won legal victories over the years has barely made a dent in the substandard schools that most children of color attend outside the South. Fifty years after Brown, separate remains unequal in northern schools. Whether the nation’s leaders will squarely face the consequence of de facto segregation in the North will determine, in no small measure, their place in history. Their failure to engage the issue condemns yet another generation of Northern school children to inferior and unequal education.
Adina Back, visiting fellow at the New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy, is the author of "Unequal Education: The Shaping of the New York City Public School System, 1946-1974 (forthcoming), and a writer for the History News Service.