The Supreme Court during its present session has the opportunity to strike its mightiest blow against racial prejudice. The nine justices must decide whether segregation of Negro and white pupils in the public schools violates the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. This week the Court is hearing five cases which will decide the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine as it has been practiced in two public schools in Delaware, a South Carolina school district, a high school in Virginia, an elementary school in Topeka Kans., and a high school in the nation’s capital.
The justices will have the rebel yells of Southern Governors such as Byrnes of South Carolina and Talmadge of Georgia ringing in their ears as they listen to the oral arguments. These prophets of doom are not unlike those who predicted “race trouble” in Alton and East St. Louis, Ill., when those communities were desegregated in 1950 under an old law re-enforced by Gov. Adlai Stevenson. But the record shows that both communities integrated their schools with a minimum of difficulty after almost a century of segregation.
Lawyers arguing the Clarendon County, S.C., case before the Supreme Court need not search for isolated examples of Southern public-school desegregation. During the past several years, one or more public-educational institutions in practically every Southern, Southwestern and border state has opened its doors to either a limited or unspecified number of Negroes, who had previously been banned altogether.
Public schools have been successfully integrated in recent years in one or more communities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. As the result of President Truman’s pocket veto of HR 5411, with its “state law prevails” amendment by Rep. Graham A. Barden (D—N.C.), public schools supported entirely by federal funds will continue on an integrated basis in the heart of the South, at Fort Bragg, N.C., Quantico, Va., Fort Knox and Camp Lejeune, N.C., and other Southern military reservations.
Tax-supported colleges and universities have admitted Negro students in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Kansas, and North Carolina. Examples of integration in private and parochial schools abound. All of these states formerly had rigid segregation policies in the communities now integrated. Most of them still have statutes on the books requiring segregation in education. But recent Supreme Court and lower federal court decisions, the President’s directive against segregation on federal installations, and (in the Southern communities of the border states mentioned) new state statutes or constitutional provisions forced action.
According to authoritative estimates, well over 10 percent of the Negro children attending public schools in the South, and nearly 20 percent of those attending Southern colleges, do so on a non-segregated basis this fall. The first Negro to attend the University of Maryland in 1935 can this year see his experience duplicated several thousand times in colleges throughout the South.
Such integration is only a small beginning, and has met some difficulty and bigotry. But in every instance, persistent enforcement of announced policy eventually overcame or is overcoming hostile resistance. Disorderly incidents have been few, brief, and successfully terminated. Unfortunately, much of the press considers the many “incidents” of successful interracial achievement less newsworthy than mere rumors of trouble.
But the lower court majority in the Clarendon County case was dubious of the possibilities of such success. A colorless opinion by Judge John J. Parker and George B. Timmerman, to which Judge J. Waties Waring filed a bitter dissent, stated that “however desirable such policies might be in the opinion of some sociologists or educators,” the court “must not go contrary to what…[parents] deem for the best interests of their children.”
Apparently all Southern parents to not look upon this “family” problem in the same light as Judges Parker and Timmerman. At Fort Bragg, only one parent complained when 1,175 white students were integrated with Negro students (including 24 white children under a Negro teacher.) The Southern-born principal advised the parents threatening to withdraw their child to do nothing which would make their daughter feel ashamed of them when she grew up. The child remained in school, and no more was heard from the parents.
When segregated schools were abolished in New Jersey, scarcely any parents protested. In the intellectually elite Princeton community, the few children withdrawn when a Negro teacher was installed generally returned.
Elsewhere, as in the Tucson public schools and the University of Texas, advance parental protests had no appreciable effect when new policies were carried out.
In Gary, Ind., the well-publicized strike against public-school desegregation was ended by parents voting to send their children back to school in response to the urgings of public officials, local clergy and the CIO Steelworkers Union. Even in Cairo, Ill., scene of a most shameful show of bigoted violence, white and Negro parents will send their children to the same school this year as evidence of their stand against intolerance.
Nor would the students and the faculty of integrated schools and universities agree with Governor Byrnes’ statement that only “selfish politicians and misguided agitators” favor admitting Negro students to all-white educational institutions. Student strikes—which usually originated with “misguided agitators” of a different stripe—have been in the great minority.
At the Carlsbad, N. Mex., high school, the 1951 graduating class, senior council, faculty and student body voted practically unanimously to welcome Negro students to study and make friends with white classmates without special notice. “The sky did not fall,” observed a University of Kentucky professor. After 10 years of graduate-and-professional-school integration at the University of West Virginia, 97 percent of the faculty in 1950 thought every university in the South should adopt the same policy.
At the University of Arkansas, several hundred Negroes have enrolled for graduate work in various departments. Many white students help their classmates who had suffered scholastically from a segregated education.
Integration of nearly 300 Negroes at the University of Louisville—termed a “magnificent success” by its President—was accomplished with full student and faculty support. The integrated school at Fort Bragg operates without fanfare over the precedent it sets. Pupil and teacher relations are the best. Some teachers, prepared for integration, were disappointed if no Negro children were in their classes. What could better illustrate Justice Frankfurter’s statement in the McGollum case that our public schools are “designed to serve as perhaps the most powerful agency for promoting cohesion among heterogeneous democratic people.”
Space does not permit the full listing of all public schools and universities successfully integrated in recent years, in whole or in part. But it is a roll call which refutes word for word the specious arguments of the Byrneses and their lawyers, who say they want to protect “innocent Negro children.” Legally enforced orders ending educational segregation have not resulted in widespread violence. The public schools have not been destroyed by withdrawal of parental support.
In this background, it will surely stretch the credulity of the Supreme Court to assert that the “police power” requires the 808 Negro children of Clarendon County, S.C., to attend separate, and presently archaic, schools.
On the contrary, as an enlightened federal court stated in 1946, it is segregation that “fosters antagonisms in the children and suggests inferiority among them where none exists.” It is segregation that “establishes an unfair and arbitrary class distinction in a system of public education.” It thus makes impossible the standards of equal education pronounced by the high court in the Sweatt and McLaurin cases.
This fall marks the first year when many schools opened on an integrated basis. Local advocates of desegregation should neither relax feeling their battle won, nor tell authorities that such changes are inevitably easy. To do so would endanger their fragile prize.
Look, for example, at Alamagordo, N. Mex. Negro and white children are being integrated this fall for the first time; and the first regular Negro teacher in the state is at work. To follow the successful experiences of other Southern schools, administrators must prepare their faculty and students for the change. Conferences can be held as school opens. Policies to be adhered to regardless of protests must be determined.
There may, of course, be tense moments. In New Jersey, a “Northern” state, the simultaneous and complete desegregation of schools in over two dozen “Southern atmosphere” communities with large Negro populations was no easy task. But resolute leadership and careful planning set an example for the world to see.
Furthermore, successful integration should not be expected to be an immediate panacea to the ills of a dual system. Geographical segregation of Negroes in the community may retard extensive integration. Prejudice against Negro students will not automatically vanish either within or without school walls. Some Negro teachers may lose their jobs. Some Negro students will fall behind as the result of “separate but unequal” education. And some Negro and white students will suffer emotional shocks from hostile situations.
But if Alamagordo holds fast throughout this transition to the basic principles of the public school, another victory for the democratic education will be won. These many schools and colleges demonstrate to the Supreme Court and the nation that there is no need to wait another 100 years to desegregate successfully and peacefully throughout the South. As a representative of the New Jersey Department of Education said: “The best way to integrate is to do it.”
Theodore Sorensen worked with John F. Kennedy for eleven years, first as his senatorial assistant and then in the White House as his special counsel and adviser.