When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, it set off a chain of events that would change the course of American history. In the South, lawmakers reacted to the ruling by passing a series of laws known as the “Segregation Academy Act” which sought to keep public schools segregated.
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The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is widely regarded as one of the most important moments in the history of American education. The Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, marking a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement.
In the wake of the Brown decision, many southern states reacted by passing laws designed to maintain segregation in their schools. These laws, known as “segregation academies,” allowed white students to continue attending segregated schools while preventing black students from attending them.
While some states passed laws requiring desegregation, most did not. As a result, many southern schools remained segregated until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the federal government began taking steps to enforce desegregation.
The Plessy v. Ferguson Decision
In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public facilities was constitutional as long as the facilities were equal in quality. This decision effectively legalized Jim Crow laws and ushered in an era of racial segregation and discrimination in the United States.
In response to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, many southern states passed laws that further institutionalized racism and discrimination. For example, some states required separate schools for black and white students, while others banned mixed-race marriages. These Jim Crow laws remained in effect until they were eventually overturned by the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The Brown v. Board of Education Decision
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Court’s unanimous (9-0) decision stated that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. The decision was based on the principle that “separate but equal” educational facilities were inherently unequal.
The Court’s opinion overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been established by the Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In Plessy, the Court had held that racial segregation in public facilities such as rail cars was permissible as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality.
The Brown decision quickly led to challenges of racial segregation laws and policies in other areas, such as public transportation, restaurants, parks, and swimming pools. Within a few years, lawsuits challenging segregation had been filed in every Southern state.
In the years following the Brown decision, Southern states sought to resist its implementation through a variety of means, including passed legislation known as “massive resistance” laws. Many Southern states also implemented devices such as freedom-of-choice plans and transferring students to different schools to avoid integration.
The Reaction of Southern State Legislatures
In the years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, southern state legislatures took a variety of actions in response to the court ruling. Some states worked to comply with the court order, while others passed laws designed to resist integration.
A number of southern states reacted to the Brown decision by passing what were known as “interposition” laws. These laws asserted that the state legislature had the right to interpose, or step in, on behalf of its citizens when it felt that their rights were being violated. In many cases, these laws were simply a way for southern states to assert their right to maintain segregation.
Other southern states took more direct action to resist integration. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent African American students from integrating Little Rock’s Central High School. And in Mississippi, white citizens formed a group known as the “White Citizens’ Council” which worked to intimidate African Americans who tried to register to vote or otherwise participate in the civil rights movement.
In spite of these efforts, many southern states did eventually integrate their public schools. In Louisiana, for example, New Orleans schools were integrated as early as 1960. And by 1970, all public schools in Mississippi were desegregated.
The Impact of the Brown Decision
The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a watershed moment in the history of American education. The Court’s ruling that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional transformed the education landscape and had far-reaching implications for American society as a whole.
In the years immediately following the Brown decision, many southern states resisted any efforts to desegregate their public schools. In some cases, state legislatures passed laws designed to impede desegregation, while in others they took no action at all. The response of southern states to the Brown decision varied widely, but the overall trend was one of resistance to desegregation.
In 1956, the year after the Brown decision was handed down, the state of Virginia enacted a series of laws known as the “Massive Resistance” statutes. These laws authorized the state to close public schools rather than allow them to be integrated. While Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws were ultimately declared unconstitutional, they delayed desegregation in the state for many years.
Similarly, in 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School. The students, who came to be known as the “Little Rock Nine,” were eventually admitted to the school after President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent troops to escort them into the building.
While some southern states took active measures to resist school desegregation, others did nothing. In many cases, this inaction had just as much of an impact on delaying integration as active resistance did. In Mississippi, for example, schools remained segregated for years after the Brown decision because state officials simply refused to take any action to implement it.
The reaction of southern state legislatures to the Brown v. Board of Education decision ranged from active resistance to passive inaction, but overall most states in the region resisted efforts to integrate their public schools in the years immediately following the ruling.
The Significance of the Brown Decision
The Brown decision was significant because it overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. Plessy v. Ferguson had established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which held that segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal. The Brown decision found that segregated education was inherently unequal and could not be justified under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Continuing Impact of Brown v. Board of Education
Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, public schools in the South are still struggling to achieve racial integration. But despite the challenges, many educators and civil rights leaders say the ruling has had a positive overall impact on education in the region.
In May 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The decision overturned the court’s previous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which had said “separate but equal” public facilities were constitutional.
Brown was a landmark ruling, but its impact was not immediate. In some cases, southern states defied the court’s order to integrate their schools, and it wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that meaningful progress was made toward that goal.
Today, many southern states have majority-minority school populations, meaning more students of color attend public schools than white students. And while some schools are still racially segregated, others have achieved significant levels of integration.