Today in 1964: SCOTUS rules against closing schools to stop integration

May 25, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryLast Friday marked the 116th anniversary of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that upheld segregation of public facilities on the principle of “separate but equal.”

Most people are more familiar with Brown v. Board of Education, decided 58 years less one day later, the ruling that invalidated Plessy on the grounds that “separate is never equal.”

Brown, in effect, ordered all public schools nationwide to be integrated.

The ruling was the end of the legal battle over racial segregation in public schools.

At least, it should have been.

Those opposed to the Brown decision organized a “massive resistance” to maintain segregation.

As part of this nationwide initiative, the County School Board of Prince Edward County in Virginia closed all of its public schools after it was ordered in June of 1959 by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to integrate all of its public schools.

The explanation given by the school board for the closure was that it is not possible to integrate the schools and, “at the same time, maintain an atmosphere conducive to the educational benefit of our people.”

Since the complete absence of schools would also be an unconducive education atmosphere, the school board used the funds formerly used for the public schools to provide tuition vouchers to the students – both black and white – within its jurisdiction.

The vouchers could be used towards the tuition at a private school of the student’s choosing.

Of course, since there were no private black schools, the vouchers were useless to the black students.

The parents of the black school children sued on their behalf to enjoin the school board from refusing to operate public schools and from using public funds to help support private schools which excluded students on account of race.

The parents won at the district court level, but lost on appeal.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and sided with the students in the Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County ruling, handed down on May 25, 1964.

Considering that states are under no federal obligation to provide public schools to their citizens, how could the Supreme Court force the school board to levy taxes and reopen its public schools?

The Court determined that the closing of the public schools in Prince Edward County “unquestionably treat[ed] the school children of Prince Edward differently from the way it treat[ed] the school children of all other Virginia counties,” since public schools were not available solely to Prince Edward County students.

While the Court found that this alone violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the fact that no schools were available to the county’s black students created an even greater equal protection violation.

In addition, the Supreme Court found that, although Virginia could allow a county to “abandon public schools,” the reason for doing so “must be a constitutional one.”

Unfortunately for the Prince Edward County school board, the “grounds of race and opposition to desegregation do not qualify as constitutional.”

Thus, as mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, and ordered the county to levy taxes such that public schools would be reopened and racially integrated (the first time the Court ever ordered a county to exercise its taxation powers).

While we can look back at this case in history and judge the outcome as being correct without question, it is highly unlikely that, had this case been decided by today’s Supreme Court, the result would have been the same.

The current Supreme Court is highly deferential to state and local authority, and has been largely wary of all but the most egregious instances of legal racial discrimination.

Fortunately, Griffin, decided 48 years ago, is well-settled at this point.

However, the difference in demeanors between the Supreme Court of Griffin and today’s Court may make you wonder:

Where would the Civil Rights movement be today if the Roberts Court were sitting on the bench back in the 60s?