The landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954 was the first step to declare separate schools for Black and white students unconstitutional. On this day in 1969, the high court made its final call to public schools, especially those in the Deep South, to end the unlawful use of segregation in those facilities.
In 1955, Brown v. Board of Education II ruling mandated that public schools move “with all deliberate speed” to integrate public schools. As a result of the legal language, school districts across the south used the ambiguous phrase to delay desegregation. Coupled with the fact that many segregationists were steadfast in their resistance, the issue became a political bargaining chip.
Over time, desegregation became a rallying cause for the NAACP and other like-minded organizations. The odds these groups faced in changing the minds of white Southerners proudly stuck in the ways of old were high. But fortunes began to shift with the case of Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education in 1969.
The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund took on the case of Beatrice Alexander and eight other Black plaintiffs in Holmes County in the state of Mississippi. Resistance to segregation was especially strong in the state, and that summer it was revealed that plans to desegregate were being held back by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the Justice Department.
Judge Hugo Black, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals justice and senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, viewed the federal government’s delay on desegregation as a favor to voters in the South for backing then President Richard Nixon. The NAACP contacted Black to uphold desegregation at the Holmes County schools, which led to the case heading to the Supreme Court.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, the lone African-American on the Supreme Court at that time and part of the legal team that successfully argued Brown Vs. Board Of Education, suggested a deadline for full desegregation by the start of the next school year, but the court’s decision effectively denied any remaining barriers to full desegregation. Although Brown vs. Board of Education established the legal precedent for desegregation, the ruling in the Alexander case was intended to see that it actually happened and did so without further delay.
That has proven to be a still elusive goal. Although the law prohibits segregation in public schools, in most urban public school districts a system of defacto segregation remains in place.