When Thurgood Marshall won a case, he would throw wild celebrations—and when he won Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, the champagne flowed like waterfalls. Sixty years ago in May, Marshall joined his NAACP colleagues to toast their success and to drink well into the night. And yet, as the evening wore on, Marshall grew increasingly sober. “I don’t want any of you to fool yourselves,” he warned the jubilant crowd. “The fight has just begun.”
Marshall, as it turns out, was too optimistic.
As Harvard’s Michael Klarman has documented, five years after the Court’s decision, just forty of North Carolina’s 300,000 African-American students attended integrated schools. A year later, only forty-two of Nashville’s 12,000 black students studied alongside white children. By 1964, ten years after Marshall’s victory before the Supreme Court, just one in eighty-five Southern black children attended an integrated school.
The Court bears much of the blame for this. The justices of the mid-1950s came of age at a time when judges routinely struck down federal child labor laws and other progressive legislation, citing dubious theories of the Constitution. By the time they became justices, many of them were deeply skeptical of judicial action of any kind.
Accordingly, the justices settled on a deeply compromised approach to integration. The Court held, a year after Brown, that integration need not be rushed, and must proceed only “with all deliberate speed.” Worse, the Court left local federal district judges, many of whom had been selected by segregationist senators, to supervise the implementation of Brown.
Though Southern resistance was inevitable, this timid order emboldened segregationists. Close to a hundred members of Congress signed a “Southern Manifesto” decrying the “explosive and dangerous condition created by [Brown] and inflamed by outside meddlers.” Several Virginia schools shut down entirely rather than permit black students to be educated alongside white ones, and of course there was Governor Orval Faubus’s infamous stand in Arkansas.
White racists also had another tactic to keep children separate: terrorism. The only way to force compliance was a court order, and that required a black family willing to sue. With the threat of Klan violence looming over anyone who dared to join a lawsuit, no one filed a case seeking to integrate a Mississippi grade school until 1963.
Brown was not a total washout. In border states like Maryland, where segregation was less rooted in the state’s culture, 90 percent of school districts complied with Brown by 1964. But in the Deep South, Brown barely laid a glove on Jim Crow. Ten years after the justices declared school segregation unconstitutional, Justice Hugo Black wrote for a frustrated Court that “there has been entirely too much deliberation and not enough speed in enforcing” Brown.