Illinois Commission on the 50th Anniversary
of Brown v. Board of Education
The Political Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education
Professor Timuel Black
Dr. William Grimshaw
Dr. Valerie C. Johnson
When one considers the mandate of the Brown decision it is difficult to understand the continuing challenges African American youth face in their quest for equal educational opportunities. The Commemoration of the 50 th anniversary of the landmark decision is marked by the reality that thousands upon thousands of minority youth face daily as they attend inferior and segregated schools. Although some success has been realized, there is no doubt that much remains to be done if we are to insure that all youth receive equal educational opportunity. Realization of that goal however, is predicated upon turning the political tide unleashed after the decision and continuing today. This section examines the political resistance to the Brown decision. And in doing so, sets the stage for understanding where we are today in our professed goal to offer educational opportunities to all children despite race and/or economic circumstance.
The Continuing Challenges of School Segregation
Most African American youth continue to attend segregated schools, albeit, by fact rather than by law. Currently, approximately 70% of African American students attend predominantly minority schools, and more than a third attend schools with a minority enrollment of 90-100% (Orfield, 2001). Segregated schooling is particularly consequential when one considers its connection to school funding. In twenty-eight states, including Illinois, the highest minority school districts receive less funding than the lowest minority districts. In Illinois, the funding disparity in high and low minority populated schools can translate into a $953,600 difference between two elementary schools of 400 students (Carey, 2003, p. 9).
Although funding disparities between low minority and high minority districts can be explained by heavy reliance on the property tax, there are also significant funding disparities within districts. High poverty schools for example, receive less per pupil spending than low-poverty schools (Roza and Hill, 2003). Segregation of the money has replaced segregation of the races as the leading problem impacting schools. Nevertheless, it is just as consequential to the extent to which African American students are able to access equal educational opportunities.
In the 1929-30 school year African American pupils received 9.8% of the funds afforded to white districts. In the 1992-93 school year students from the poorest districts received 13.6% of the funding children from the wealthiest districts received (Lowe, 1997, p. 15). Thus, while the problem is cast as a class problem, it is nonetheless a race problem, considering the high concentration of minority students in poor school districts.
No longer do African American youth face an angry white mob barring them from attending well-resourced schools. The culprits these days are school funding, and living patterns that distribute educational opportunities based on economic circumstance. The culprits, to be sure, are a result of political decisions and political wrangling that has little to do with children, and more to do with power. In its wake, these decisions have failed generations of children, maintaining socioeconomic disparity between the races. To be sure, there is nothing politically neutral about a decision to rely on property taxes to fund education. There is also nothing politically neutral about living patterns, which exacerbates the impact of heavy reliance on the property tax. The solutions, likewise, rest in the political will to reduce reliance on local property taxes to fund education, providing additional targeted funding to high poverty school districts, and policies that promotes changes in residential housing patterns.
Segregated Housing, Segregated Schools
US Census data show that for the period 1950-1960, central city populations in the largest 25 SMSAs increased by just over 3%, while total suburban populations increased by well over 60%. While the total populations of the nation's largest central cities stagnated, the number of blacks in the central cities increased substantially, and was met with depopulation by whites who migrated to the suburbs. These migration patterns, often referred to as dual migration, resulted in the suburbs remaining largely white despite tremendous growth, and the cities becoming increasingly nonwhite.
Dual migration in this period gave whites the opportunity to circumvent the Brown decision by placing their children in districts with a majority white population. African American migration to the suburbs was largely abated by racial covenants, and through intimidation and violence (Massey and Denton, 1993). Exacerbating these trends were Federal government policies that subsidized white flight to the suburbs through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans established by the National Housing Act of 1934 and Veteran's Administration (VA) loan. Both housing policies established federally guaranteed low down payment long-term mortgages.
Although the express purpose of the two Federal housing policies were to jump-start the housing industry, features of the legislation promoted the construction of homes outside of the inner city. Title I of the Housing Act of 1934, for example, provided FHA insurance for loans to repair and renovate existing housing stock in the city. Section 503 of the Housing Act, on the other hand, provided FHA loans for the construction of new one to four family units. Between 1935 and 1974, 75% of the total FHA insured home mortgages went for new housing construction (Judd and Swanstrom, 1994, pp. 200-205).
The disparities that existed in support of the two loan programs were the result of FHA bias toward housing construction in economically sound neighborhoods. Considering the dilapidated conditions of urban neighborhoods, this bias all but guaranteed that new housing would be built outside of the inner city, far away from African Americans and other poor minorities, thereby creating the urban ghetto. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) declaring racial covenants legally unenforceable, racial discrimination in housing continued relatively unabated, through racial steering and redlining practices.
By 1970 mass white suburbanization had become a reality. The 1970 census of the population was the first to show that a majority of Americans lived outside of the inner city. However, the bulk of suburbanization remained white, while African Americans and other minorities were primarily confined to the inner city.
At this juncture, the ability to integrate public schools was in most urban districts a virtual impossibility, given the urban and suburban political boundaries separating the races. Proposals to merge urban and suburban school districts were abated by the Milliken v. Bradley (1974) decision, which held that urban districts could not include suburban districts in their efforts to integrate. In some districts however, failure to integrate public schools was less the result of intra- jurisdictional living patterns, and more the result of political resistance. Chicago is a case in point.
Resistance in Chicago
In October of 1979, Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris notified the Chicago school board that unless an acceptable school desegregation plan was submitted later that month, the matter would be referred to the Justice Department for legal action. According to Ms. Harris, HEW civil rights officials had collected a vast amount of evidence that showed “a clear pattern, over a period of almost 40 years, of intentional Board of Education action to reinforce and perpetuate segregated conditions and to avoid integration (Williams, October 18, 1979).”
In Chicago, the period after the Brown decision was no different than the pre-Brown period. Nonetheless, when the 1963 school year began (9 years after the Brown decision), School Superintendent Benjamin Willis and Mayor Richard J. Daley “continued to deny there was segregation, let alone unequal education.” In response, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, formed in 1962 under the leadership of Timuel Black, called a one-day school boycott for October 22, 1963. On the day of the boycott, “virtually every black student in the system stayed at home, while thousands of protesters marched on City Hall. Within two years the federal government shut off funds to Chicago schools,” and although Daley was able to bring the money back, “he could not stop the federal courts from finding segregation and discrimination in the system (Rose, November 24, 1999).”
A glaring attempt to circumvent the mandate of the Brown decision is evident in the policies of School Superintendent Benjamin Willis (1953-1966). Rather than allow African American students to attend predominantly white schools that had vacant classrooms, Willis stacked African American students in “Willis Wagons,” which were mobile classrooms in the schoolyards of overcrowded schools (Grimshaw, May 30, 1988). All told, Willis placed 625 mobile classrooms in schools in African American neighborhoods (Lynch, December 30, 1999).
Another tactic was to devise school boundaries in such a way as to insure that African American students would not be able to attend predominantly white schools. Together, tactics such as these formed the basis of the HEW complaint against the system. And despite community opposition, Mayor Richard J. Daley, and a host of African American politicians initially supported Willis’ apparent disregard for the mandates of the Brown decision. In 1963 when Willis rejected a modest transfer plan, “the Chicago Board of Education upheld his decision when he threatened to resign. At this time 562 classrooms stood empty in white neighborhoods,” while schools in African American neighborhoods were overcrowded (Gerson, 1978).
Amidst increasing pressure from the African American community, Daley encouraged six African American aldermen (known as the silent six) to “speak out against Willis… to take some of the heat off the city.” However, “not until several boycotts, many altercations between protestors and police, and a number of trips by Dr. Martin Luther King, would Willis and his wagons become a footnote in the history books of Chicago (Watters, April 25, 1996).”
HEW Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris’ 1979 threat was the outcome of years of delay to integrate the Chicago public school system. In 1976, the Illinois Board of Education officially ruled that the Chicago public schools were not in compliance with the Board’s rules related to eliminating and preventing racial segregation in the schools. In 1977 the Chicago school board finally responded to state threats to withhold aid by forming a Citizens Advisory Committee (City Wide Advisory Committee (CWAC) to come up with a desegregation plan for review and action by the Board of Education (Kustra, 1978).”
Although the CWAC submitted a plan to School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Hannon, he never presented it to the Board of Education for approval. Ultimately, the plan was scuttled and Hannon presented the city and State Board of Education with Access to Excellence, a voluntary five-year plan. According to Hannon, “an aggressive desegregation plan would exacerbate the flight of white and middle-class people from Chicago (Gerson, 1978). Access to Excellence, introduced in the fall of 1978, made claims to integrate, without significant busing. Ultimately, fewer than 20,000 students were transferred to different schools under the plan.
It was in this vein that the system faced federal reprisals. In 1980, under a consent decree worked out with the U.S. Justice Department, Chicago finally came up with a plan to desegregate its schools by December 1981. The plan however, required the school system to create “the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools.” But, “there was no requirement that all black schools be eliminated (Harsch, December 22, 1980).” At this point, the system was 18.5% white.
The plan was ultimately delayed until February 1982, when the Justice Department proposed that Chicago “be allowed to desegregate its schools under a plan that relies almost exclusively on voluntary student transfers, with no mandatory busing (Associated Press, February 13, 1982).” The new plan ultimately went into effect in the fall of 1983, after approval by Federal District Court Judge Milton I. Shadur—ironically, during the administration of the system’s first African American superintendent—Dr. Ruth B. Love (Pear, January 8, 1983). According to William Bradford Williams, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division “any students who want to have an integrated education ought to have it, but if there are students out there who do not want an integrated education, we should not be compelling them to get on a bus to have one (Taylor, February 14, 1982).” After decades of foot dragging, Chicago had successfully averted integrating it’s school system, until a time when it was virtually impracticable or politically unnecessary.
By 1994—forty years after the Brown decision-- 9 percent of African American students in the Chicago system attended integrated schools, and fewer students were attending integrated classes than had in 1983 when the court ordered desegregation plan was implemented (Chung and White, May 15, 1994). Recently, Chief Judge Charles P. Kocoras of the Northern District of Illinois, who has been reviewing the Chicago desegregation order, has questioned whether the consent decree is still necessary if less than 10 percent of the city's public school population is white (Sander, May 17, 2004 ). As a result of this inquiry, a modified consent decree was approved in March 2004. The modified decree set up a timetable of actions required before the end of the 2005-06 school year, when the judge will consider releasing the school district from court supervision (Rado, May 14, 2004 ). Thus far, “Chicago Public Schools has missed the first key deadline” outlined in the modified order (Olszewski, May 12, 2004 ).
Illinois r anks among the top four states most educationally segregated (Ihejirika, May 17, 2004 ). Needless to say, the reality of segregated schools is antithetical to the mandate of Brown. To be sure, political resistance has been effective in maintaining segregated schools. However, the goal of Brown had less to do with segregated schooling as much as it did with providing a quality education for all youth. In that regard, the most consequential ruling currently impacting the education of poor and minority youth, is the 1973 Supreme Court decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which held that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a fundamental right to an education, and that in cases where wealth is involved, the equal protection clause does not require absolute equality. As a result of the Rodriguez decision and the attendant realities of segregated living patterns, heavy reliance on the property tax to fund public school education, and continuing racism, quality education is not provided on an equal basis. To this extent, the mandates of Brown have never been fully realized, and countless African American youth continue to receive an education that is separate, but by no means equal.
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