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The original intent of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was to dismantle the separate-but-equal policy in American public schools. Joe Feagin (2004, p. 68) argues that the language used by Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974), who wrote the Brown opinion, intentionally focused only on public schools: “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” However, the landmark Brown decision did not put an end to segregation in public schools due to the hostile response the decision received from white elites.
Derrick Bell (2004, p. 18) argues that Warren’s use of extremely ambiguous language in his opinion hindered the implementation of desegregation. Specifically, Warren stated that “because of the wide applicability of this decision and because of the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases presents problems of considerable complexity.” With these words, the Supreme Court postponed any immediate action and ordered the plaintiffs to return to court at a later date to address the issue of implementation.
Consequently, the 1954 Brown decision had to be revisited one year later in the Brown II case, which specifically addressed the issue of remedying racial segregation in American educational facilities. White southerners objected to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling, and openly expressed racist sentiment, insisting that they had no intention of integrating the public school system. Furthermore, the consensus among local courts and the white public generally was that school desegregation could not be achieved. The Supreme Court faced outright resistance from state and local branches of government and from lower courts. With this social backdrop, the Court heard legal arguments in 1955 concerning the issue of implementation, and issued the Brown II decision. According to Bell:
The Court expected a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance, with defendants carrying the burden of showing that requests for additional time were necessary in the public interest and consistent with good faith compliance at the … earliest practicable date.… The court returned the cases to the district courts with the admonition that orders and decrees be entered to admit plaintiffs to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis, “with all deliberate speed.” (Bell 2004, p. 18)
Bell suggests that the Court, in using such weak language as “all deliberate speed,” confirmed that its earlier Brown decision was “more symbolic than real” (2004, p 19). The phrase “with all deliberate speed” was met with a wide range of responses. As Paul Finkelman points out, “Brown II might have been more forceful and direct. In hindsight we might argue that there should have been more emphasis on speed and less on deliberate” (2004, p. 36).
Bell describes how federal judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, “two decades after Brown, offered practical details why Brown II was a mistake.… The enormous discretion of the trial judge in interpreting such language as all ‘deliberate speed’ and ‘prompt and reasonable start’ made his personal role painfully obvious” (2004, p. 19). Judges who wanted to implement desegregation were often met with violent opposition from local whites when they used the words of the Supreme Court. Mindful of the history of racial violence against African Americans in the South, these judges cautiously phrased how the implementation of school desegregation would take place to avoid a violent backlash against African American communities. Furthermore, the failure of the Court to delineate a specific remedy for school desegregation allowed judges who favored racial segregation the means to stall, thus perpetuating segregation in education (Kluger 2004).
In the face of massive resistance from white southerners and from southern courts and legislatures, it took nearly twenty years for the United States to begin largescale implementation of the Brown decision (Feagin 2004). Today, although racial segregation in schools can no longer be legally imposed, many American schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade remain racially segregated, and in some regions even more segregated than they were before Brown. Education scholars have suggested that this segregation is largely the result of the successful stalling techniques employed in the South, combined with de facto racism in the North, all of which was facilitated by the “all deliberate speed” phrasing of the Supreme Court in 1955 (Orfield and Eaton 1997).
- Bell, Derrick. 2004. Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgibin/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=349&invol=294.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 495 (1954). http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vo l=347&invol=483.
- Feagin, Joe. 2004. Heeding Black Voices: The Court, Brown, and Challenges in Building a Multiracial Democracy. University of Pittsburgh Law Review 66: 57–81.
- Finkelman, Paul. 2004. The Radicalism of Brown. University of Pittsburgh Law Review 66: 35–56.
- Kluger, Richard. 2004. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Knopf.
- Orfield, Gary, and Susan E. Eaton. 1997. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.
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