by Dr. Glenn Linden
Southern Methodist University
The Supreme Court’s momentous Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandating an end to "separate but equal" public education changed forever the entire fabric of American society. It was a unanimous decision declaring that legally enforced segregation of public schools violated the constitutional right of African American students to equal protection of the law.
At the time of this decision, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had segregated school systems. Each had to decide how to comply with the new ruling. The Court allowed some flexibility in their response by handing down an additional ruling the next year requiring that desegregation be carried out with deliberate speed. Some of the border states decided to comply, but states in the Deep South refused to acquiesce, issuing a public manifesto of opposition. In fact, nineteen U.S. senators and eighty-one congressmen in the South supported all lawful means to re-establish legal segregation. This set off years of confrontation and violence—the Montgomery bus boycott was followed by conflict over desegregation at Little Rock High School, Freedom Riders in Mississippi, the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham over segregation, and the culmination in a massive march in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous "I have a dream" speech. These events, plus the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Lyndon Johnson considered the Voting Rights Act "one of the most momentous laws in the entire history of American freedom." Finally, the federal government was in complete support of civil rights for all its citizens.
During the same years, the state of Texas wrestled with its response to the federal demands for desegregation. For almost one hundred years, its laws had formed the basis for segregation in Texas. Then, a number of Texas cities began to admit blacks to their all-white schools. First Houston, the nation’s largest segregated school system, admitted a number of blacks to its schools. No crowds gathered and most Houstonians accepted desegregation as inevitable. The following year, Dallas desegregated its public facilities and eight of its schools without violence. A similar effort in Galveston proved successful. Later, Texas laws supporting segregation were declared unconstitutional, thereby nullifying all school segregation laws and removing the last state laws discriminating on the basis of race.
Now the burden shifted to the local school districts to obey the Brown decision and to do so with deliberate speed. The process was begun and has continued for four decades. On the whole it has been peaceful. But it is not over. The real question still remains to be answered—will men and women of goodwill lay aside prejudices and work for the common good? If they do, the result will be schools that we can be proud of—schools where boys and girls can be free from all discrimination and where there will be equal opportunities for education regardless of race. This must be the basis of our public school system and of our democracy.