Demyth-ifying the Road from Brown v. Board: A Series on the Role of White Parents in School Segregation
School’s out for the summer! And while we celebrate all the wonderful, mad chaos that summer has to bring, I’ve also been thinking about the institutions a lot of us will be leaving behind for the next few months. In truth, it’s a topic that is never far from my mind, because I am (and always have been) steeped in white spaces. I grew up attending predominantly white schools, I work in predominantly white professional spaces with mostly white coworkers, and my down time is spent in the company of a decent number of white people.
And because I’m in all these white situations, navigating a bunch of relationships with white people who are at various points of their journey - I’m always encountering myths that they tell themselves, many of them the same myths that I also grew up with. With the recent passing of the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board, I’ve been thinking specifically about the top 2 myths that I encounter a lot concerning segregation and integration. They find their beginning in the mistaken belief that Brown v. Board ended segregation entirely and cleared the way for a “evened out” education system for all students. That idea then gives way to thinking that because a “level playing field” exists for all kids, there’s no harm in white parents making sure that their children get the very best education that their resources can reach.
However, since Brown v. Board didn’t leave the lasting legacy that was intended, the unacceptable separate but “equal” starting point never fully transformed into the hoped for - together and equal. As a result, the cost of these myths has been borne and paid by black and brown children. These myths are stories that I see being imparted to young people (both black and white) via the actions or inactions of parents, particularly white parents. Because these are such important and pernicious myths, let’s take a closer look, starting with myth #1.
MYTH #1 - Thanks to Brown v. Board, desegregation worked!
Many of us are familiar with the landmark supreme court case, Brown v. Board. The ruling of the case declared that the segregation that ruled the land was unconstitutional, and that all school systems needed to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Unfortunately, from the time that Brown v. Board was handed down as the law of the land, the countdown and the effort was already on to begin dismantling its mandate to fully integrate schools. And even more unfortunately, it was a many pronged attack.
Almost immediately, states put the wheels in motion ways they would circumvent that law. By 1956, Virginia’s government called for a massive resistance to prevent Brown from being implemented. Other states, such as Tennesse, Arkansas,and Mississippi (to name a few) soon followed suit. And leading the mobs that showed up in full force to intimidate, threaten and hurl ugly insults to black kids on their way to school, were white parents.
White parents have consistently played a large role resisting integration efforts. Together with the courts they have largely ensured that mandates for integration have been thwarted while reconstituting new methods for segregation.
The Supreme Court responded in Green v. County School Board by “[restating] the Court's resolve to end segregated schooling and established more specific parameters for allowable and effective means to that end.” More specifically, the court identified five factors — facilities, staff, faculty, extracurricular activities and transportation — to be used to gauge a school system's compliance with the mandate of Brown. This reiterated to school boards across the country, that while the Supreme Court was willing to let districts choose how to integrate, the expectation that they would integrate and obey the ruling passed down by the court stood.
For the next decade, the battle between the desegregation resistance and the integration opposition raged on, with the dissenting states and white mobs doing everything in their power to and undermine desegregation orders. Then the 1970s hit and Nixon was elected as president. In that position, he had the opportunity to nominate and get confirmed four supreme court justices to the bench. All justices that would serve as the majority decisions in Milliken v. Bradley.
Millikan v. Bradley was basically the first official domino of white flight to the suburbs. Housing discrimination had long been linked to educational attainment in public schools, but Millikan v. Bradley effectively dismissed the need to address segregation across school district lines. The court ruled that school systems are not responsible for desegregating across district lines, as so long as segregation is not an explicit policy of the school district.
The fallout of this was basically that school districts were treated as silos, and it was deemed unnecessary to look at the geography of the surrounding region and make efforts to bus students between districts. The solution of integration must be found within the boundaries of the district, which in the urban part of Detroit (where the court case originated), didn’t have many white kids to spread around to its predominantly black schools.
And making discrete separations from district to district only gave rise to more white families leaving city centers for the surrounding suburbs. A white flight that was sadly replicated in so many metro areas, St. Louis included, around the country in the 1980s.
Inching closer to present day, and moving beyond some of the historical details, we can see clearly that the implications and impact of all of these actions and decisions hasn’t stayed in the past. While the Brown v. Board legislation is well known and the fall out is thought to be clear, the legislative response is rarely, if ever, mentioned alongside it in history. Also rarely ever mentioned or thought about beyond the initial desegregation attempts, are the sustained resistance efforts of white families to keep the schools that their children went to white. There was always the blatant refusal to integrate. And that pattern of white parents resisting and blocking attempts to make schools places for all children has meant that the burden and cost of segregation and integration has continuously and continually fallen to black families and children.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
As you digest all of the above information:
Reflect on what you knew or thought you knew about desegration’s history before reading this post.
Did you learn anything new? And if so, what insight does it provide? Why do you think you hadn’t known it before?
Next month, Part 2, will move the timeline closer to present day. Before that, here are more resources to dive into:
The court cases referenced in this post
There are so many other factors that went into desegregation in the US (this series will barely scratch the surface!) and the Equal Justice Initiative has connected many more dots on Their Segregation In America website
Myron Davis Photos chronicling Kentucky’s school desegregation resistance
Resources for families
Picture books for family conversation:
Someday is Now. Clara Luper and the 1985 Oklahoma Sit-Ins - Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Jade Johnson (AOC)
Separate is Never Equal. Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation - Duncan Tonatiuh (AOC, IOC)
As Fast as Words Could Fly. Pamela M. Tuck, Eric Velasquez (AOC, IOC)
Busing Brewster - Richard Michelson, Robert Roth
Freedom’s School - Lesa Cline-Ransome, James E. Ransome (AOC, IOC)
And for the older kiddos, check out these chapter books and graphic novels:
This Promise of Change. One Girl’s Story in the Fight For School Equality - Jo Ann Allen Boyce, Debbie Levy (AOC)
Little Rock Nine - Marshall Poe, Ellen Lindner
This blog post was written by Rhema Anazonwu, Program Manager for We Stories. We are grateful for her work, perspective and contributions.