The Beginning of the End
On October 29, 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts must end segregation “now and hereafter.” With this unambiguous language, the Court, which now had Thurgood Marshall as a member, left no room for doubt or delay.
What's the Word?
Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education is an important (and, today, curiously underrated) Supreme Court decision from 1969. It mandated immediate action in the segregation of public school facilities.
The Court was responding to a legal challenge from diehard anti-integrationists, who had learned—from civil rights proponents, no doubt—that the legal system could be used to support social objectives. The anti-integrationists, however, received a major defeat when the Court ruled unanimously that Mississippi (and, by extension, the nation) was obliged to integrate public schools “at once.”
This was a dramatic change from the language of the 1955 decree implementing Brown v. Board of Education, which had required integration of educational facilities “with all deliberate speed.” In many parts of the country, this was interpreted by local school boards as “when you feel comfortable getting around to it.”
After retiring, Chief Justice Earl Warren explained the choice of the “all deliberate speed” language of 1955 in this way: “There were so many blocks preventing an immediate solution of the thing in reality, that the best we could look for would be a progression of action.”
In other words, the Court left states (and the federal court system) leeway to move toward desegregation in 1955. The 1969 case, known as Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, finally made clear to all involved that, a decade and a half after Brown, time was up. There was to be no more legal justification for delay in the integration of public school facilities.
Alexander was a crucial decision—as important in effect as Brown was in principle. For some reason, however, the case has not received much attention from the mainstream media and the public school system in the years since it was delivered.
The question presented is one of paramount importance, involving as it does the denial of fundamental rights to many thousands of school children, who are presently attending Mississippi schools under segregated conditions contrary to the applicable decisions of this court. Against this background the court of appeals should have denied all motions for additional time because the continued operation of segregated schools under a standard of allowing `all deliberate speed' is no longer constitutionally permissible. Under explicit holdings of this court the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.
—From the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969)
Why were northern cities the focus of conflicts over busing? Northern cities were likely to be divided into very large neighborhoods (or, more accurately, subcities), in which either African-Americans or whites lived. This meant that desegregating public schools in these cities required students to travel to schools far from their homes, a prospect that many white parents resisted bitterly.
The Fallout from Brown and Alexander
Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education was the kind of resounding, unambiguous legal victory that might well have seemed unattainable only a few decades earlier to African-Americans. At long last, the nation's highest court had sent a clear signal demanding immediate change from racist local authorities. One lesson of this period, however, was that legal redress was not the same thing as equal opportunity in the real world.
Having secured the legal right to equal, unitary educational facilities, African-Americans saw many white communities respond with bitter resistance to the reality of racially diverse classrooms. The conflicts over desegregation proved, as though further proof were necessary, that the racial divisions in America's urban centers were still in place—and painfully obvious.
The challenge of desegregation was most pronounced in major cities, and it was probably clearest in Boston in the mid-1970s.