Brown v. Board of Education has earned mythical status as the singular court case that dismantled segregated school systems. This is the way the story is always told.
“A watershed event" ... "the pivotal Supreme Court ruling that forced the integration of U.S. public schools” … "the first time the laws of this land said that it was illegal to deny an educational opportunity to someone based on race."
But the story of Brown v. Board ended not with a bang, but a whimper.
Today is the 45th anniversary of Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education. Unlike Brown v. Board, the Alexander case hasn't earned the same reverence. Which is unfortunate. Because it was this case that dealt the final, decisive blow to recalcitrant anti-integrationists.
You see, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional and schools should be desegregated. The dicey part was how to end segregation -- and how quickly schools were to integrate. In 1955 the Court heard arguments on this specific aspect. While the NAACP argued for "forthwith" -- immediately, without delay -- the Court went with a phrase that was like catnip to segregationists in Mississippi and across the South: "with all deliberate speed."
For school districts and white parents who wanted no part of integration, "with all deliberate speed" amounted to "Whenever we damn well get around to it. So I'll go ahead and pencil that in for...never." Willful defiance and massive resistance to integration was standard operating procedure in southern states -- "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" was the battle cry in Alabama and elsewhere in the region. Which is how we get to 1969, 15 years after the “historic turning point for our nation” and Black children are still in segregated schools.
Enter the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It championed the cause of Black students and families in Holmes County, who were still suffering under the Republic of Mississippi's "separate but equal" doctrine. In late October 1969, with Thurgood Marshall now on the highest court, SCOTUS treated die-hard segregationists like a stubborn child: No, you cannot keep your favorite racist toy. You will integrate public schools "at once". No more tantrums. You will end segregation "now and hereafter."
The question presented is one of paramount importance, involving as it does the denial of fundamental rights to many thousands of school children, who are presently attending Mississippi schools under segregated conditions contrary to the applicable decisions of this court. Against this background the court of appeals should have denied all motions for additional time because the continued operation of segregated schools under a standard of allowing `all deliberate speed' is no longer constitutionally permissible. Under explicit holdings of this court the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.—From the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969)
It was an unequivocal rebuke -- a "resounding, unambiguous legal victory" -- that had dramatic results.
“By the fall of 1970, all school districts had been desegregated, compared to as late as 1967 when one-third of Mississippi’s districts had achieved no school desegregation and less than three percent of the state’s black children attended classes with white children.”
The Alexander case was crucial in the fight for educational equity and illustrates how equity in education is never won with quiet patience. It's always a dogfight. When it comes to Black parents and their kids, segregationists were facing some fierce hounds. It feels good when the dust settles to be the last one standing.