Brown v. Board of Education is inarguably one of America's most important Supreme Court cases. It found segregation illegal American public schools, which had up until that point employed a "separate but equal" policy that limited African-American students' access to local and well-funded public education. Though the 1954 ruling was groundbreaking, it was far from an immediate shift. Over 60 years later, America is still grappling with the fallout of years of racism and exclusionary policies in its school system.
Shortly after Brown v. Board of Education ruled in favor of desegregation in the South as well as the rest of the United States, riots broke out. School systems throughout the US invented loophole after loophole to avoid integrating schools, sometimes going so far as to physically block students from entering, actively violating the Supreme Court's ruling. It took years of activism, demonstrations, and solidarity before integration was fully realized, with people today still fighting to ensure that public school remains accessible to all. Pictures of segregation can show what these times looked like, but the stories of the students and parents who lived through these years reveals so much more about the fight for equality.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was in violation of the 14th amendment, and was thus unconstitutional. But that ruling merely meant that they knew the practice was wrong - it would take nearly a year for the Court to make a second ruling on what was to be done about it. That second ruling required even more arguments about how best to proceed in school desegregation, drawing out the process even further. The Court consulted with multiple organizations, historians, and individuals to aid in their plan, with the NAACP supporting quick desegregation and defense lawyers claiming that integration could not and should not come to pass.
For the child at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education case, Linda Brown Smith, and other students like her, this lack of an immediate plan left them in limbo. Smith described in an interview what happened when she and her father went to enroll in a nearby school shortly after the ruling:
I remember the day that we walked over to Sumner School, the all-white school, four blocks from our home. My father took me by the hand, and we walked briskly over to the school. I remember going inside the building. Being a small child, the steps seemed large, the building seemed large. We walked inside. My father asked me to stay outside in the foyer and sit. He went inside with the principal, and they talked, and as they talked, I remember their voices growing louder and louder, and I knew something was wrong. After a while my father came out, he took me by the hand, and we began to walk home. And as we walked home, I could feel tension within his body being transmitted to my hand. And I looked up at him, and I knew something was wrong. When we got home, he tried to explain to me that they turned me down, and I would not be able to go to the school that my playmates went to, because of the color of my skin, but being a young child, I didn't comprehend color of skin. I only knew that I wanted to go to Sumner School.
The Supreme Court's decision to progress desegregation "with all deliberate speed" left much of the work up to states - the same states that were resistant to desegregation in the first place. In the months after the verdict, white Southerners took action to find ways to maintain segregation despite the ruling. School districts shut down public schools and redirected funds to all-white private schools, because, according to them, they wanted to avoid violence. Journalist Hodding Carter III described the legislation that some communities enacted to maintain the status quo:
The laws were committed to insuring that nothing would change. You still had schools which were rigidly segregated black and white, and laws were passed to make sure that if the courts or other outside forces required that they be integrated, they would be closed. Laws were passed to see to it that state monies might be used for private education, all white. Laws were passed to try to guarantee that voting, which was a function reserved almost exclusively for whites in Mississippi – so exclusively that perhaps 12,000 blacks voted in the general election of 1955. That is, voting would be a function so exclusively maintained by the white voting registrars that no new black registrants could get on.
Outside of the state legislatures, everyday citizens started forming organizations with the intent of keeping change out of white communities. One of the most notable organizations was Mississippi's White Citizens' Council, an organization made up of businessmen and government officials that wanted to maintain white racial identity via legal means. Though they were committed to upholding segregation, they claimed to comport themselves in a more "peaceful" manner than the Klu Klux Klan, earning them the nickname "the uptown Klan."
While 49% of Americans supported integration in 1956, that figure was not representative of opinions in the South. In the North, 61% of the populations supported desegregation, but that figure fell to 15% in the South. Tensions between those who supported desegregation and those who didn't manifested in ongoing riots, but for the individual students selected to attend previously all-white schools, their decision had a profound impact on every facet of their lives.
As one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green was at the center of one of the most contentious conflicts over integration. Green described in an interview how his life started to change from the moment it was announced he would be going to the all-white Central High School:
It was in August, early August. I was working as a locker room attendant at a country club. It was white. In fact it was a Jewish country club, because in the South, Jews were not allowed to join the other country clubs, so there were a number of them with enough money to go ahead and form their own.
We got called down to the school board office, one evening. I was informed that afternoon that I was one of the students selected. I didn’t know who the other students were. I didn’t know how large the number was. And for the first time, when I got down there, I met the other eight students. Now, four of them I knew. We grew up, lived in the same neighborhood, same church, went to junior high school and the earlier grades at the same time. But the next morning, the newspapers ran the names of the nine of us who were going to Central.
I’ll never forget, I went back to work the next day. This young guy, who was about my age – his folks were members of the club – he came up to me and said, "How could you do it?" I said, "What do you mean, how could I do it?" He said, "You seem like such a nice fellow. And, you know, why is it you want to go to Central? Why do you want to destroy our relationship?" And, first time it begin to hit me that going there was not going to be as simple as I had thought the first time when I signed up. I was still committed to go, but it made me know at that time that it was going to mean a lot to a lot of people in that city, particularly to white folks. And from then on, events started to cascade.
Little Rock, Arkansas, was one of the most intense examples desegregation riots. In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard to prevent nine black students – later known as the Little Rock Nine – from entering Central High. It took three weeks and a US Army escort before the students were able to enter the school, and they had to be promptly escorted out by police due to the increasing violence of the mobs. President Eisenhower ultimately sent in paratroopers to put a stop to the threats and violence, but the students were still faced with daily threats, taunts, slurs, and more.
Melba Pattillo Beales, one of the Little Rock Nine, recalled the experience of her first day entering Central High:
What I felt inside was stark raving fear—terrible wrenching, awful fear, a fear that I cannot explain to you. There are no words for how I felt inside. I knew I was into a space that I had never been, and I knew no pain, I'd known no pain like that because I didn't know what I'd done wrong. You see, when you're 15 years old, and someone's going to hit you or hurt you, you want to know what you did wrong. And although I knew the difference between black and white, I didn't know the penalties one paid for being black at that time. So I was a child.
And I remember walking through the grass to the car to go to school thinking, I'm going to get water on my saddle shoes. Because my grandmother always made me polish my shoes. And I remember looking at the ground and thinking, oh, if I could just turn back, you know. But we went to school that day and, I went in a car with Elizabeth Eckford, with Terry, with a bunch of other kids.
We entered the side of the building, [and it] sounds like at a football game. Thousands of people out front. And we were entering the side, and I could just get a glimpse of this group and in the car I could hear, on the car radio, I could hear that there was a mob. And I knew what a mob meant, and I knew that the sounds that came from the crowd were very angry. So, we entered the side of the building very, very fast. Even as we entered, there were people running after us, there were people tripping other people. And once I got into the school, it was very dark. It was like a deep, dark castle. And my eyesight had to adjust to the fact that there were then people all around me. Children, youngsters, some were in class because they brought us in like later, during the middle class, and we were met by school officials and very quickly dispersed our separate ways. And there has been never in my life any stark terror or any fear that’s akin to that.