Education played a very important part in post-1945 civil rights history. Much time and effort was spent on education – the belief being that in a democracy it was only right and fair that all people regardless of skin colour should have the right to a decent education. This issue of civil rights and education made international headlines with the affair that took place at Little Rock High School in 1957. But education was to remain at the forefront of civil rights even after this event.

In 1945, the two areas where segregation and racism was most obviously applied was in housing and in education. In the southern states, the African Americans lived in the poorest areas with the worst facilities. That they did was symbolic that they had the worst paid jobs that could only afford the most basic of facilities. The worst financed schools were also in these areas so the separation between education and the general standard of lifestyle in America is a clinical one – the two must be seen as being one of a whole. This problem was not only restricted to the southern states either.

Within the south, the general philosophy that had developed since the civil war, was that if African Americans were kept ill-educated they would remain ‘in their place’ in society. An educated “boy” could become a danger. There was also a belief in some areas that African Americans were not intelligent enough to deserve an education. The shadow of “Jim Crow” cast itself over education in the south. The result of this was very much linked to the poverty most African Americans found themselves in – without a good education, no-one could advance themselves in southern society. Therefore, a poor education guaranteed a poor lifestyle for the African Americans

There had been some movement after the Second World War regarding attitudes. The horror of the death camps in Europe and the abject nonsense of scientific racism had moved by degrees some sections of southern society. The whole element of black equalling backwardness weakened though it did not die out. Military service by African Americans had made young men more assertive and the NAACP built on this development.


“I spent four years in the army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I’m hanged if I’m going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirreee-bob! I went into the army a nigger; I’m comin’ out a man.”  Corporal in the US Army.


In 1896, the Supreme Court had established the ruling of “separate but equal” in education. This was never applied in totality in the south – only the “separate” was. This had been applied to schools and colleges of further education. One of the pioneering civil rights leaders was the lawyer Thurgood Marshall.

Marshall had been rejected by the University of Maryland Law School on racial grounds – they did not accept African Americans there. He was a graduate from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (an all black student college with an all white teaching staff). After his rejection from the University of Maryland, Marshall went to the Howard University Law School. By 1938, he was the chief legal advisor to the NAACP.

After his experiences, Marshall focussed his attentions on “separate but equal” in further education colleges. The south could hardly claim to have equal facilities in higher education. No black college offered any course leading to a Ph.D. Only two offered medical courses. No blacks-only college offered engineering or architecture. Law could only be studied at one or two colleges. Such courses were found in numerous whites-only colleges. Marshall lead the campaign to rectify this under the law with a patient campaign using the Supreme Court and previously stated directives. He also used what was in the Constitution.

In June 1950, the Supreme Court issued two directives.

The state of Texas had set up a ‘blacks-only’ law school. Its facilities were poor – just three class rooms and three teachers. The Supreme Court ordered the state to admit an African American student to a whites-only law school.
Oklahoma was also banned by the Supreme Court from segregating facilities within its graduate school of education. Up to the order, the college made African Americans use separate libraries, cafes etc. and during lectures they had to sit in an area of the classroom marked “Reserved for Coloureds”.

The two decisions set the tone for the future of higher education establishments. The Supreme Court had applied the law as they saw it and there was no higher or more powerful body in America than the Supreme Court. However, what was stated in Washington DC was not necessarily applied in the state where it was meant to apply. What if that state decided to ignore a Supreme Court ruling and carry on as before? How could the Supreme Court enforce its decisions?

Thurgood Marshall next turned his attention to the vexed issue of segregated public schools. 21 American states had segregated schools which were attended by about 40% of school children. The north could not claim to have separate but equal facilities. For the south, any claim that their schools were separate but equal was absurd.

South Carolina spent 3 times more on white-only schools than black-only schools. It also spent 100 times more on transporting white school children than African American children. Therefore, the white children could go to the best schools as they were bussed there with the cost met by the state, but African American children were limited to schools within their area which were under-funded – simply because the state refused to finance their transport to other schools. The value of white school property in South Carolina was six times that of black school property. The figures were worse for Mississippi and in this state the school year for African Americans was shorter; teachers pay was less and the books they used were those no longer needed by white schools.

In their cause to rid the south of such abuses, the NAACP needed the help of people who lived in the community where such abuses occurred. For African Americans to assist the NAACP so openly in the south within each locality was fraught with danger. To dare to suggest that the status quo should be turned upside down was unacceptable to the whites in the south. Levi Pearson, an African American farmer in South Carolina, was one such person who spoke out against the segregation of schools and assisted the NAACP. The local bank refused to advance him credit so he could not afford to purchase fertilisers; local white farmers who had always lent him equipment at harvest time refused to do so and his crop rotted in the field. Shots were fired at the home he lived in. To many this would have been enough to pull away from the problem and return to anonymity. To men like Pearson, it was treatment like this that spurred him on.

In 1953, five cases against segregation in schools reached the Supreme Court. These involved the education policies of Kansas, Virginia, Delaware, Washington DC and South Carolina. One case was put forward by Levi Pearson. This series of court cases led to one of the most famous of civil rights decisions of the 1950’s – Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka.

The Rev. Oliver Brown lived in Topeka, Kansas, and had an eight year old daughter who had to travel 21 blocks to get to her school despite the fact that there was one just 7 blocks from her home. The one nearest her home was for white children only. Her school was decidedly inferior to the one nearest to her. This was not “separate but equal”. It was separate and known to be inferior.

The head of the Supreme Court at this time was the liberal Earl Warren. As head of California’s judiciary during World War Two, he had been responsible for interning Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbour. They were forced to live in poor conditions and labelled untrustworthy to America. In future years, Warren made it clear that he believed that he had made a poor judgement and that he regretted what he had done. 

When it came to civil rights abuses, he had made a promise to do what he could to undo blatant abuses such as those found within education. However, he had to get other members of the Supreme Court on board and this was difficult. There were those who believed that forcing a decision on to the south would only make matters worse; judges such as Felix Frankfurter and Robert Jackson. They argued that though these abuses were clear to see, any imposition of law on the traditions of the south would see the civil rights movement pushed back. They argued that persuasion was the only method that would succeed – not law enforcement. What would the Supreme Court do if the states refused to accept a decision that banned segregation in schools ?

Warren persuaded those in the Supreme Court that his way – the legal promotion of social equality – was the best and on May 17th 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools.


“In the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equalhas no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. (Segregation) generates a feeling of inferiority (among students) as to their status within the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Warren


The decision took America by storm – one way or the other. Warren’s opponents called May 17th “Black Monday”. 

The “Chicago Defender”, an African American newspaper, called the decision “the second emancipation proclamation………..more important to our democracy that the atomic bomb or the hydrogen bomb.” 

The status of the Court in America gave the decision huge kudos. There had never been a time when a Supreme Court judgement had not been acted on and many did not expect this to change – even though some southern states were considered to be extreme in their racism. Warren’s decision gave judicial legitimacy to the civil rights movement – here was the most powerful judicial body in America (some would argue the most powerful body in America) giving its apparent support to the ending of the abuses that seemed to transcend the south. The Brown v Topeka decision gave the whole civil rights movement a new spark of life. “Without Brown, the civil rights movement would not have been quite the same.” (Patterson)

Some southern states complied with the law and publically stated that they would not do anything to interfere with the ruling. The governor of Alabama, Jim Folson, said “When the Supreme Court speaks, that’s the law.” His equivalent in Arkansas said “Arkansas will obey the law. It always has.” By the end of 1957, 723 school districts in the south had desegregated their schools.

However, not all African Americans were happy with the Warren decision. They felt that African Americans, by going to desegregated schools would face segregation within those schools and suffer accordingly. Or that the African Americans in those schools would congregate together and not with white children. So what would have the decision achieved ? Desegregation in theory but not in reality. 

Some, such as Zora Neale Hurston, believed that African American children would do better in black-only schools for the very reasons given above. The hostility of the desegregated schools to African American children, she felt, would hold them back. Giving equal facilities and financing to white schools, she felt that African American children in their own schools would progress more as the environment there would be better – no underlying tensions etc. Hurston pointed out that desegregation was not integration.

Could desegregation suddenly undo the thoughts in peoples minds overnight?


“How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me to be near them?”Zora Hurston


Other critics of the Warren decision felt that it was wrong to assume that children were under-performing in black-only schools. It may well be that they were not doing as well as they could with proper funding, but the premise that black-only schools were inherently inferior angered some.

Research by Jencks and Mayer indicates that though schools may have been theoretically desegregated by the Warren decision, the actual character of southern schools did not change – thus supporting the words of Hurston. Desegregation may have been imposed on southern schools but it did not do much to change the overall pattern of society in the south. African American children in these desegregated schools tended to stay together. Integration with white children was rare. Little ghettos grew up in southern schools – exactly as had happened in the towns and cities they lived in.

There were those in the south who were adamantly against Warren’s decision. In some states such as Mississippi, the decision gave an extra boost to those racially more extreme than others. Racial moderates gave way to these extremists. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, claimed that communists were behind the decision. He believed that the African Americans did not instigate the action but that they were lead into in by those “who are intent upon overthrowing American institutions.”

Political leaders in South Carolina and Georgia publically stated that they would not adhere to the decision.


“I do not believe in Negroes and whites associating with each other socially or in our school systems, and as long as I am governor, it won’t happen here.” Gov. Herman Talmadge, Georgia.


Why and how could these states so brazenly ignore a Supreme Court ruling?

The decision in 1954 was followed by silence. No orders had been given for a time in which desegregation should take place. In fact, after the Warren decision, not a lot more came out of the Supreme Court on this issue for the rest of the year. This was enough to encourage some southern politicians to flout the law. Warren had been very keen not to give an immediate schedule for desegregation as he did not want to be seen as bullying the South. He was conscious of the strong belief in state rights in the south and did not want to be seen as using strong arm federal power to impose rulings on states.

Some believe the stance taken by President Eisenhower encouraged those who were anti-desegregation. He felt that federal compulsion would backfire as any changes had to come from the localities. He was also acutely aware of the culture of the south as many of his friends were southerners who openly referred to African Americans as “darkies”. Eisenhower never publically endorsed the Warren decision but claimed that he was duty bound to accept it. He believed that educational desegregation would lead to social disintegration:


“Any fellow who tries to tell me that you can do these things by force (desegregation) is just plain nuts.” Eisenhower


In May 1955, the Supreme Court finally turned to the issue of implementation. By then, anti-Supreme Court feeling had grown and so had resentment against the Brown v Topeka decision. It was also becoming clear that simply carrying out the decision was fraught with complexities. For this reason, the Supreme Court effectively backed off against enforcement. It failed to set a standard definition of a desegregated school – was a 90/10 ratio white to black acceptable? Should it be 50/50? No one took a decision on this. The Court also refused to set a timetable for desegregation. It stated that:


“(school districts) must make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance (with) all deliberate speed.”


Though this was open to interpretation (what is “prompt and reasonable”?), what became known as “Brown II” provoked outrage in the southern states. 1955 was a year of much violence. Eight African Americans were lynched in this year alone – out of a total of eleven for the whole of the 1950’s. In 1956, a young African American female – Autherine Lucy – was nearly lynched when she tried to enrol at the University of Alabama. The university expelled her and she had to flee the area. The University of Alabama only started to desegregate itself in 1963 despite all the rulings of the Supreme Court. This showed the great weakness of the Court – what if states failed to implement its rulings? What could be done about it?

Also in 1956, a mob of 2,000 whites stopped African American children entering a school in Clinton, Tennessee. Desegregation was only carried out here after the intervention of the National Guard who used tanks and other military vehicles to ensure that black children could get to their school – though what these children felt once inside their school is difficult to imagine. The same type of obstruction happened in Mansfield, Texas where Texas Rangers were used to implement the law. In all these cases the federal government did nothing stating that they were internal state matters to be resolved by the states – even though they were flouting Supreme Court rulings which had a federal impact.

The issue of desegregation in schools rallied most southern politicians. They claimed that the federal  government was imposing itself in areas which it had no knowledge of and that states rights as guaranteed in the Constitution were being violated. This was the most common approach by politicians who played on the known hostility to the federal government that existed in the south. It is not coincidental that Georgia, in 1956, adopted a new state flag – one that had on it the Confederate battle insignia. In March 1956, 22 southern Senators and 82 Representatives issued the “Southern Manifesto” which claimed that the Supreme Court abused its judicial power and that those who signed the document would do all in their power to overturn the decision from Brown v Topeka and that they would do all they could to stop the forcible desegregation of schools in the south.

The less educated whites in the south turned to the KKK – recruitment to the KKK rose dramatically after 1955. Their methods to terrorise African Americans was more basic – house burnings, violence against individuals, church burnings etc. The idea was to get the African Americans to keep to their ‘own’ schools so that desegregation might exist on the statute book, but that the African Americans would remain in black-only schools and reject going to mixed schools.

States in the south did all they could to by-pass the Warren decision. White children who wanted to attend private schools were given state grants to do so. Teachers who stated that they wished to work in desegregated schools had their teaching licence revoked. “Pupil placement” laws were used whereby children took tests which were assessed by psychologists and these ‘professionals’ put the children in the appropriate school depending on the results of the tests. The worst example of bypassing Warren came in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Here, all public schools were shut and only private schools were allowed. When African American families refused to accept the schools offered to their children, those children got no education. This went on for three years.

Such abuses could only be settled in court and this took time. Schools were theoretically desegregated in 1954.

By 1962, whites-only schools (and therefore black-only schools) still existed in Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama.

By 1964, less than 2% of African American children attended multi-racial schools in the eleven states associated with the south. Many colleges remained whites-only and these colleges had very few if any African American teachers on their staff.

The north could not claim to be free from this kind of abuse. By 1968, more than 30% of all African American children went to public schools that were 90% non-white. The was de facto segregation but it was not as overt as in the south. African Americans had effectively segregated themselves probably for the reasons which were identified by Zora Neale Hurston. Social engineering was an issue which even the Supreme Court could not make laws on.

The most famous example of a school district, local politicians, local people etc. refusing to accept the Warren decision took place in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.