Desegregation Research Paper

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Segregation can be both voluntary and involuntary, forced and by mutual agreement. When segregation results in exclusion from public goods, rewards, and privileges, or when segregation results in stigmas, then a violation of the basic conditions of democracy is evident. When such segregation occurs along racial lines, it becomes racial segregation. When racial segregation is operant across major social institutions, it is considered institutional racism.

Efforts in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have been aimed at reversing racial segregation. These efforts, labeled desegregation, are political processes that make use of civil protest, litigation, and economic sanctions to eliminate racial segregation. Racial segregation, both de jure and de facto, has historically served to restrict access to education and training, economic and political institutions, occupational and social mobility, religious and social institutions, and neighborhoods and transportation facilities. Within the United States, most desegregation activity has focused on educational institutions, public accommodation, and the military.

While many cite the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as the beginning of desegregation, in actuality desegregation reflects a process that continues into the twenty-first century. The Brown decision, by striking down legal segregation on the basis of race in public schools, reversed the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Desegregation in Educational Institutions

Throughout history, one of the primary tactics of exploitative systems was control of access to education. Some of the first laws aimed at controlling Africans during the slavery era prohibited or restricted educational access. These laws, which carried harsh sanctions, denied educational access not only to slaves but to freed Africans as well. The same method was used to keep European women, Native Americans, Chinese, and others in subordinate positions. It is no wonder that one of the major features of the various civil rights movements has been directed at dismantling segregated or restricted access to educational institutions.

Although many thought the Civil War (1861–1865) and the associated constitutional amendments would resolve the issue of segregation in the United States, the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling actually mandated it. Within months after this historic ruling, seventeen southern states began to implement sets of laws—known as Jim Crow or de jure segregation—that formalized and legitimized racial segregation in most institutional spaces. Among these were laws that established “separate but equal” educational facilities. While often lacking specific legislation, the North accomplished the same effect through what has been termed de facto segregation.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, with its aim to end school segregation, struck at the heart of the system of racial entitlements in the United States. Nothing less then a revolution was envisioned. As pointed out by Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton (1996), integration did not represent a magical process in which simply situating whites and blacks in the same room would end centuries of discrimination. Rather, it recognized that white dominance had been engineered through exclusive control of select schools. Ending this dominance and making such schools available to all would serve to remove the racial stigma and victimization of blacks, provide black Americans access to other major institutions, and level the playing field, thereby assuring equality and freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools did indeed perpetuate racial stigmas among blacks, and that such schools were therefore inherently unequal. Yet, in striking down Plessy, the Supreme Court decided ambiguously that integration should take place “with all deliberate speed.”

“All deliberate speed” has been described as simultaneously placing the country’s feet on both the accelerator and the brake. Throughout the South, a multitude of strategies were instituted to delay, divert, or otherwise circumvent the Brown ruling. In 1956 advocates of segregation were successful in convincing Virginia’s governor and state assembly to pass laws blocking the funding of school integration. One of the most striking anti-integration efforts occurred in 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus (1910–1994) ordered the state’s national guard to block the doors to Little Rock’s Central High School, preventing nine black teenagers from entering. Only after President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) sent federal troops to the site were the nine students allowed to attend the school. Other states were equally creative. Prince Edward County in Virginia decided to close all of its public schools rather than integrate them. Lawsuits filed on behalf of blacks throughout the South filled the courts. More definitive court rulings ensued, but the road to integration was fraught with many obstacles.

A decade after the Brown decision, southern schools remained 98 percent segregated. Continual agitation on the part of blacks led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thereafter, courts prescribed more immediate and encompassing integration efforts. Starting in 1966 with United States v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the Fifth Circuit Court not only ordered integration but also remedies to redress historical segregation. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court ordered schools to provide immediate integration. Similar court rulings, aggressive enforcement by the federal government, and the vigilance of southern blacks eventually led to the racial transformation of schools in the South. By 1970, slightly more than 45 percent of black youths in the South attended integrated schools. Frustrated, however, with the slow pace of integration, in 1971 the Supreme Court ordered a massive urban desegregation plan in Swann v. CharlotteMeklenburg Board of Education. In this plan, with the aid of busing, the first district-wide school desegregation order was provided. Busing, as it came to be known, became a very controversial tool to achieve integration.

Busing and forced integration generated considerable fear among many white Americans. This fear resulted in “white flight” (i.e., when whites leave typically urban areas to avoid living in proximity to blacks), and it fueled a conservative backlash against desegregation efforts. During the 1970s, some Republican politicians, such as Richard Nixon (1913–1994), would ride the waves of this backlash all the way to the White House and control of both houses of Congress. These conservative forces also oversaw the first set of reversals. By 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court blocked a Detroit area busing plan. In this and subsequent cases, the courts ruled that local decisions regarding school integration should be respected.

As segregation was challenged in the North, the Supreme Court would institute even more radical moves, inaugurating the era of busing, teacher integration, gradual integration, and magnet schools. Although partial success may be claimed, more than fifty years after Brown, little progress has been made toward the racial integration of America’s school system. White flight, private schools, and the more recent voucher movement have all served to preserve racial segregation in schools.

Desegregation in Public Accommodations

Access to public space and private dwellings has long been disputed terrain in the United States. Property and the access to property has been the determinant not only of status, but also of political and social rights and privilege. In the United States, the rights to vote, hold political office, and seek legal recourse were all initially reserved for those who owned property. Thus, the first sets of laws aimed at controlling blacks included laws that not only declared them property but also restricted their ownership rights.

The battle to gain access to the totality of American liberties would be incomplete without access to public accommodations. Black Americans pinned their hopes of total freedom on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which together granted them full citizenship. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court declared that black Americans would retain the stigma of race and secondclass citizenship, and be denied even basic access to public accommodations. This ruling, more than any other single action, led to the dissolution of good will, the dismantling of postwar Reconstruction, and the wholesale creation of the extensive apparatus of Jim Crow segregation under the misbegotten rubric of “separate but equal.” It would take almost a half-century, several hundred lynchings, and countless court cases before Plessy would be overturned.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act put an end to segregated lunch counters, hotels, trains, buses, and theaters. This legislation owes its enactment to the courage and determination of many who became heroes of the modern civil rights movement. One such hero was Rosa Parks (1913–2005), who on December 1, 1955, challenged the whites-only Jim Crow laws of Montgomery, Alabama, by refusing to give her seat on a bus to a white patron. Her courageous action launched the modern civil rights movement.

On February 27, 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, defied the laws of segregation by sitting down at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter and requesting service. Although they were not served, their defiance sparked similar acts in over one hundred American cities throughout the 1960s. In 1961 civil rights activists known as “Freedom Riders” began to protest the whites-only policies in public bathrooms and buses. In May 1961 thirteen Freedom Riders, white and black, left Washington, D.C., in two buses heading south.

Riders on the first bus were attacked by pipe-toting men in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. The second bus was fire-bombed just outside of Anniston. Undaunted, sit-ins, freedom rides, and other forms of protests compelled a reluctant Congress and president to pass and sign into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Desegregation in Military Institutions

Black Americans have consistently put their lives on the line in defense of their country. However, their service was for many years dismissed, isolated, and segregated. Notwithstanding the valor of such revolutionary-era heroes as Crispus Attucks, a patriot killed by British soldiers in Boston in 1770, General George Washington in 1775 officially barred blacks from serving in the Continental Army. This order, reflecting the legal view of many in the colonies, was followed by the 1792 Congressional Act, which barred blacks from serving in state militias. Congress also prohibited the Marine Corps from its inception in 1798 from recruiting blacks.

Ironically, the First Rhode Island Regiment, formed in 1778, was composed almost entirely of former black slaves. Furthermore, unlike the Continental Army, the Continental Navy recruited heavily among blacks, both free and slave. These sailors, sought for both their skills and to fill major gaps, served with distinction throughout the revolutionary period. Late in the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), in response to British recruitment among slaves, Washington reluctantly eased the ban on the recruitment of slaves. These blacks, however, served in segregated regiments under white officers.

Although blacks have served with distinction and honor throughout American history, their service was typically ignored and downplayed. The U.S. military remained segregated until shortly after World War II (1939–1945), when President Harry S Truman’s (1884–1972) Executive Order 9981 (1948) called for the end of racial segregation in the armed forces. It was not until war broke out in Korea in 1950, however, and the United States faced heavy casualties that the military decided to act upon this order and create the first racially integrated units.

By 2006, with African Americans filling over seven thousand officer posts and composing 20 percent of all service personnel, the military represents the most desegregated institution in the United States. Finally, while blacks do serve in significant numbers at all levels in the military, their service tends to be restricted to noncombat and communications roles. For example, black service members make up less then 3 percent of the pilots, tank commanders, and special forces personnel. Thus, although the U.S. military is formally integrated, nominal segregation by training, specialty, and duty remains the rule.

Desegregation Outside of the United States

Segregation has developed wherever there have been racially based societies. What makes these societal situations different has to do with the relative permeability (perceived or real) of segregation. Thus, countries such as France and England exhibit relatively more racial flexibility than such countries as Australia or South Africa. In both France and England, with the decline in their colonial empires, there were deliberate attempts to integrate a greater number of nonwhite citizens into the cultural, political, and social life. In both France and England, noncolonial persons of color experienced a greater degree of social mobility than former colonial subjects. And while much progress has been made, racial unrest in both countries in the first decade of the twenty-first century indicates that more progress needs to be made.

In contrast, extremely rigid castelike structures of racial segregation have only fallen in the last few decades in such countries as Australia and South Africa. In both of these countries, indigenous persons of color experienced decades of exclusion from power, economic advancement, and education, and they were forced to live in enclaves, reservations, or specially designated communities. While these formal walls of racial discrimination have fallen, informal walls remain as “Coloreds” in South Africa and Aboriginals in Australia continue to seek an expansion of their political, economic, educational, and societal power.


  1. Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Orfield, Gary, and Susan E. Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.
  3. Winant, Howard. 2002. The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II. New York: Basic Books.

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