School desegregation ends

Desegregation at Little Rock: Little Rock Central High School. February 14. 1969

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.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.