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School Desegregation

1954–1970: School Desegregation After Brown, The 1970s: Swann And Busing, The Busing Debate

The attempt to end the practice of separating children of different races into distinct public schools.

Beginning with the landmark Supreme Court case of BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the United States' legal system has sought to address the problem of racial SEGREGATION, or separation, in public schools. In Brown, a unanimous Supreme Court found that segregating children of different races in distinct schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, which guarantees that "[n]o state shall … deny to any person … the EQUAL PROTECTION of the laws" (§ 1). In writing the Court's opinion, Chief Justice EARL WARREN stressed the crucial role education plays in socializing children, and he maintained that racial segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority" in children that will limit their opportunities in life. A related decision, Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955), (Brown II), empowered lower courts to supervise desegregation in local school districts and held that desegregation must proceed "with all deliberate speed."

A number of Supreme Court decisions in the decades since Brown have further defined the constitutional claims regarding desegregation first set forth in Brown. In many cases, these decisions have resulted in court-imposed desegregation plans, sometimes involving controversial provisions for busing students to schools outside their immediate neighborhood. Despite such judicial actions, desegregation in the United States achieved mixed success. Although many more children attend school with children of other races now than in 1954, in numerous cities, racial segregation in education remains as high as ever. Faced with the challenges of shifting populations, segregated housing patterns, impatient courts, and the stubborn persistence of racism, comprehensive school desegregation—long a hoped-for remedy to past discrimination against African Americans—remains an elusive goal.

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