A History of School Desegregation

In August of 2018 a news story was released about 11-year-old Faith Fennidy, a former student of Christ the King Elementary School in Terrytown, Louisiana. Fennidy’s story quickly went viral due to the reaction it created after it was revealed that Kennedy was asked to leave school due to her choice of hairstyle. The hairstyle in question was not one of bright colors or abnormal cuts and styles, but it was extensions styled into braids as a way of protecting and maintaining young Fennidy’s hair.

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While the school rules do state that extensions are against school policy, this rule cannot help but discriminatory against black students. As stated in an article published by Kalhan Rosenblatt, “The superintendent for the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Office of Catholic Schools, RaeNell Billiot Houston, said in a statement that the archdiocese develops policies for each school and that Christ the King has a policy that allows only natural hair.”

Yet in a supposedly post-segregation era, the question to be asked is, “How can this issue still be happening and why have we not already learned from our mistakes?” The truth of the matter is that no matter what laws are enacted, culture and ideology are extraordinarily difficult to change. That is why it is important to continually remember the steps that have been taken to get us to where we are today, and the steps we still need to take in the future.

Segregation is defined as “the action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things or being set apart. The enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community, or establishment.”  The history of segregation in the United States is a dark one, specifically in our educational systems. While it can be tempting to want to forget the past in order to move on, it is important to remember where we have come from and acknowledge the wrongs that have been committed in order to continue on towards a better future. While the crimes that have been committed can never be righted, through education and admission, we as a nation can continue to be an example for others.

The history of school segregation and its eventual reversal is a long and complicated one. While this paper will focus more specifically on the events that occurred on September 4th, 1957 involving “The Little Rock Nine,” it is important to first have a general understanding of the events that took place in order to reach this point, as well as the events that followed.

Historic Cases

In 1865, the 13th amendment was ratified, outlawing and abolishing the institution of slavery. In 1868, the 14th amendment strengthened the rights of slaves, providing the opportunity for all to have equal access to the law and the processes of protection that it allowed. Then in 1870, the 15th amendment provided legal rights to slaves, allowing them to vote. Despite these amendments there were still major injustices taking place against freed slaves. While slaves were “free” they were still chained to the burdens and stigmas placed on them by whites, simply because of the color of their skin. Laws began to be put in place by many states that decreed that blacks and whites could not use the same public facilities, ride the same buses, attend the same schools, etc.

These laws became known as the Jim Crow Laws. While these laws were opposed by many, it wasn’t until 1892 that they were challenged in court for the first time. This case, known as Plessy v. Ferguson, involved a black man refusing to give his seat to a white man on a train, which in the state of Louisiana was required by law. Because of this action Plessy was arrested. Plessy, arguing that the arrest violated his rights stated in the 14th amendment, went on to contend his case in court. By 1896 the case was taken to the supreme court where the vote came out 8-1 against Plessy.

As stated by Justice Henry Billings Brown, “The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon colour, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality. . . If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”  Sadly, this case continued to uphold the institution of Jim Crow laws in the United States, but it was not the end of the legal fight to end segregation. Some of the primary cases involved in this noble fight included Murray v. Maryland in 1936 which challenged the University of Maryland School of Law for their rejection of black students attempting to enroll in their institution. The case presented was that Murray was just as qualified to enroll in the school alongside the white students, and his rejection was based solely on his race. The court ruled in favor of Donald Gaines Murray, allowing him enrollment in the school.

Another prominent case was the McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education case of 1950. The University of Oklahoma had admitted George McLaurin, an African American, to its doctoral program. As legally required by the school, McLaurin should have been allowed the same opportunities as his fellow white students, given access to the same classrooms, libraries and cafeterias as everyone else, however, this was not the case. McLaurin was assigned to a specific seat in the back of the classroom, a specific table in the library, and a place set apart from the rest of the students to eat. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where it was ruled in favour of McLaurin that the university stop these actions immediately as they were negatively affecting McLaurin’s academic learning.

These legal cases were just some of the many that took place in the fight to end segregation in schools, but they are not as well-known as possibly on of the most famous fights against segregation, Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education was actually the combination of five different school desegregation cases: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; Briggs v. Elliot; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia; Bolling v. Sharpe; and Belton v. Gebhart. Combined, these cases were based of the Plessy decision made in 1896 and challenged the final verdict of “separate but equal,” eventually being brought to the Supreme Court. As stated in the article, “Brown et al., v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et al., 347 U.S. 483, 349 U.S. 294” published by Stanford University,

The Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown decision, handed down on 17 May 1954, determined that the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place in education and violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: “To separate [blacks] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone”. With this decision, racial segregation in schools became unconstitutional.

While the Brown v. Board of Education case was historic, it took some time before the decisions that were made took place, and objection to the ruling was so rampant that the court issued a second decision in 1955, known as Brown II, ordering school districts to begin the process of integration in haste, but this order was not met without hesitation.

The Little Rock Nine

It was September of 1957 at Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas, three years after the Supreme Court had ruled school segregation to be unconstitutional. Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls had bravely registered to be the first students to make the first steps towards integration at Central High School. These students signed up knowing that this act would be difficult, but they were ready for a fight. As stated by Carlotta Walls in the article “Remembering Little Rock’s Integration Battle” written by Lina Mai, “I knew what Brown meant, and I expected schools to be integrated. I wanted the best education available.”

The day had finally come for Central High to be integrated and the nine students, known today as “The Little Rock Nine,” bravely made their way towards the school. They were soon met by an angry mob numbering over 1,000. The mob shouted racial slurs towards the nine, chanting against integration. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, the National Guard had to be sent in order to make sure the nine made it into their new school safely. In a speech given by President Eisenhower to the citizens of Little Rock in 1957, his outrage about the situation is apparent. He says,

In that city, under the leadership of demagogic extremists, disorderly mobs have deliberately prevented the carrying out of proper orders from a Federal Court. Local authorities have not eliminated that violent opposition and, under the law, I yesterday issued a Proclamation calling upon the mob to disperse…

Proper and sensible observance of the law then demanded the respectful obedience which the nation has a right to expect from all its people. This, unfortunately, has not been the case at Little Rock. Certain misguided persons, many of them imported into Little Rock by agitators, have insisted upon defying the law and have sought to bring it into disrepute. The orders of the court have thus been frustrated… Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts.

Eisenhower’s quick and firm action garnered a positive response from many, especially from the parents of the ones that were fighting for their fundamental right to education. A letter to the President was written by the parents of the nine, thanking him for his efforts. It states, “We the parents of the nine negro children enrolled at Little Rock Central High School want you to know that your action in safe guarding their rights have strengthened our faith in democracy. Now as never before we have an abiding feeling of belonging and purposefulness.”

And yet despite Eisenhower’s efforts, and the eventual desegregation of Little Rock schools, the fight was far from over.

This image, taken by Ira Wilmer, Jr. on September 4th, 1957 portrays Elizabeth Eckford (in a white dress, carrying a folder and wearing sunglasses) and Hazel Bryan (directly behind Elizabeth, with clenched teeth and also wearing a white dress), was taken on the exact day that Eckford, along with the other eight of “The Little Rock Nine,” took the first physical steps in the fight to end school segregation in the United States. The tense atmosphere is evident in the faces of the members of the mob surrounding Eckford; tight jaws, clenched teeth, and fists at the ready. Yet despite the aggression of the crowd, Eckford, with a stealy and determined look on her face, continues on the march of her life in this historic and groundbreaking photograph.[footnoteRef:12] In a recorded testimony, Eckford gives her own account of the day. She states, “As I stepped out into the street, the people who had been across the street started surging forward behind me. So, I headed in the opposite direction to where there was another bus stop. Safety to me meant getting to that bus stop.”

Unfortunately, it was not smooth sailing for the nine after they safely made it to their classes that fateful day. They continued to face severe persecution during their time at Central, subject to constant taunting and racism. Daisy Bates, a journalist and civil rights activist details some of the abuse the nine encountered in her letter to NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins. Her letter states, “We also pointed out that the treatment of the children had been getting steadily worse for the last two weeks in the form of kicking, spitting, and general abuse. As a result of our visit stronger measures are being taken against the white students who are guilty of committing these offenses.”  The article, “Reexamining Central High: American Memory and Social Reality” written by Damon W. Freeman, writes of the continuing segregation problem that is much more difficult to solve than simply allowing black students into white schools. Freeman writes,

Despite (or perhaps in spite of) the examples of Eckford, Massery, and the Central High community, it soon became evident that many black students in the audience questioned whether desegregation had in fact led to an improvement in socio-economic conditions for African Americans. During the question-and-answer period, several pointedly asked Eckford to compare black life in the 1950s during segregation with present-day conditions. Indeed, frustration could be sensed in the urgent tone with which some students spoke. Several argued that many blacks continued to be oppressed by an institutional racism that is much harder to solve than integrating a school or removing a whites-only sign.

The sad truth is that while segregation may be illegal outwardly, it is still being expressed in our schools today as evidenced by the story of Faith Fennidy. While this can be discouraging to see, we have the responsibility to continue to be a force for change in our schools, cities, and nation. I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., speak on the topic of racial inequality in today’s day and age. This is what she had to say about our generation’s impact and role in the fight against racism: “When we understand that we are a part of each other, we can begin to be a model for the next generation. I think the next generation can teach us the way. They see humans more than they see colors or racism. If we can face the dark moments of our history, then we can begin to change.” Culture is very difficult to change, but there is always hope. We have the chance to end America’s history of racism, but we must do so by remembering and honoring the ones who have gone before us. [16: Dr. Bernice King, ‘Where Do I Live’ (Speech, Orange Conference, Atlanta, GA, May 3, 2019).]

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