Integration: More Speed, Less Deliberation

  • Share
  • Read Later

"With all deliberate speed" was the well-calculated phrase that the Supreme Court used in 1955 to describe how U.S. public schools should be desegregated. Last week the court decided—in the words of Associate Justice Hugo L. Black—that "there has been entirely too much deliberation and not enough speed." In separate unanimous decisions, it gave federal district courts considerable powers to reverse one flagrant defiance of the law in Virginia's Prince Edward County and to challenge a typically tortoise-paced Southern effort at obeying in Atlanta.

"Inordinate Delays." There was a measure of exasperation and even anger in Justice Black's decision on the "inordinate delays" in Prince Edward County, which closed its public schools in 1959 rather than integrate them. Since then, white children have been educated by the "private" Prince Edward School Foundation. Now supported largely by parental donations, the foundation was helped along by a system of state and county tuition grants until 1961, when a district court ruled that such grants were illegal so long as the public schools remained closed. Negro children, who for four years had virtually no education at all, now have a temporary school system, paid for mostly by out-of-state donations. Since every other county in Virginia operates public schools, the court decided that the Prince Edward system denied Negroes equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment.

The court accepted without quarrel a Virginia court decision that every county in the state has the option to operate public schools or not. But, the U.S. court added, it was unmistakably clear that Prince Edward County had exercised its option solely to prevent white and Negro children from attending classes together. "Whatever nonracial grounds might support a State's allowing a county to abandon public schools, the object must be a constitutional one, and grounds of race and opposition to desegregation do not qualify as constitutional," wrote Black. Since "relief needs to be quick and effective," the Justices declared that federal district courts had the power to compel county supervisors to raise taxes for the reopening of the public schools.

The Atlanta decision was a gentle attempt to accelerate one of the South's best-publicized plans for achieving integration without revolution. In 1961 Atlanta adopted a system of desegregating classes at the rate of one grade a year, starting with the twelfth grade. Since then, only 150 of the city's 45,000 Negro pupils have gone to school with whites, and the program will not take full effect until 1971. The Justices therefore ordered the federal district court in Atlanta to take another look at the plan and consider changes if it does not fit the Supreme Court's rulings.

Room for Evasion. The decisions left plenty of room for more segregationist evasion. In Atlanta, school officials were relieved that the court had not directly outlawed their mode of gradualism. Said Superintendent of Schools John Letson: "I think that the district court will review what the board of education has done, and see that it has done it in good faith."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2