In 1954, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education and the modern era of school desegregation litigation began. The essence of the Brown holding was that equal protection of the laws is synonymous with the right to equal educational opportunity and that segregated education is "inherently unequal." Since that landmark decision, hundreds of school systems have been embroiled in lawsuits alleging a denial of the equal educational opportunity guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment. In the years between 1954 and 1968, attempts to desegregate schools in the Deep South were met with strong resistance, and numerous techniques to avoid implementing the Supreme Court's mandate were developed. Southern district courts interpreted Brown as narrowly as possible, adopting the view that the Constitution "does not require integration. It merely forbids discrimination." Accordingly, most federal district courts were satisfied with remedies which merely forbade the exclusion of Blacks from white schools. As a result of the district courts' unwillingness to take effective action, the burden of implementing the mandate of Brown fell primarily upon the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court, with little guidance from the Supreme Court regarding the mechanics of desegregation, attempted to define uniform standards. In the process, the court declared that Brown I and Brown II required not only an end to state-mandated segregation but also included an affirmative duty to integrate southern schools.
Despite the efforts of the Fifth Circuit, however, progress toward desegregation was slow. Finally, in 1968, the Supreme Court evidenced its impatience by declaring that "[t]he burden on a school board today is to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now." No longer would the mere adoption of a voluntary freedom-ofenrollment policy suffice. "'Freedom of choice' is not a sacred talisman; it is only a means to a constitutionally required end-the abolition of a system of segregation and its effects . … [I]f it fails to undo segregation, other means must be used to achieve this end." Substantial progress followed this pronouncement.
"From Denver to Dayton: The Evolution of Constitutional Doctrine in Northern School Desegregation Litigation,"
University of Dayton Law Review: Vol. 3:
1, Article 7.
Available at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/udlr/vol3/iss1/7