Desegregation in the United States

A Short Timeline History

Laws explicitly mandating racial segregation came about primarily during the Jim Crow era, and the effort to eliminate them over the past century has been, for the most part, successful - but racial segregation as a social phenomenon has been a reality of American life since its inception. Slavery, racial profiling, other injustices reflect a system of institutional racism that reaches back across the Atlantic to the very origins of the earliest colonial regimes and forward into the future for generations to come.


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The Fourteenth Amendment protects the right of all citizens to equal protection under the law but does not explicitly outlaw racial segregation.


The Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation laws do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment as long as they adhere to a "separate but equal" standard. As later rulings would demonstrate, the Court failed to even enforce this meager standard; it would be another six decades before the Court meaningfully revisited its constitutional responsibility to confront racial segregation in public schools.


President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, outlawing racial segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.


In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that "separate but equal" is a flawed standard. As Chief Justice Earl Warren writes in the majority opinion:

"We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

The emerging segregationist "state's rights" movement immediately reacts to slow the immediate implementation of Brown and limit its effect as much as possible. Their effort will become a de jury failure (as the Supreme Court will never again uphold the "separate but equal" doctrine), but a de facto success (as the U.S. public school system is still profoundly segregated to this day).


Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, establishing a federal policy that prohibits racially segregated public accommodations and imposes penalties for racial discrimination in the workplace. Although the law has remained in effect for nearly a half-century, it remains highly controversial to this day.


In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court rules that laws banning interracial marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment.


Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which includes the Fair Housing Act prohibiting racially-motivated housing segregation. The law has been only partially effective, as many landlords continue to ignore the FHA with impunity.


Facing an end to both public school segregation laws and laws banning interracial marriage, Southern policymakers grow concerned about the possibility of interracial dating in public high schools. To address this threat, Louisiana school districts begin to implement gender-based segregation - a policy that Yale legal historian Serena Mayeri refers to as "Jane Crow."


In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, the Supreme Court rules that all public universities must have a coeducational admissions policy - though some publicly-funded military academies will remain sex-segregated until the Supreme Court's ruling in United States v. Virginia (1996), which forced the Virginia Military Institute to allow the admission of women.


In Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, the Supreme Court rules that public schools may remain racially segregated as a matter of practice in cases where desegregation orders have proven ineffective. The ruling essentially ends federal efforts to integrate the public school system. As Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in the dissent:

Consistent with the mandate of [Brown v. Board of Education], our cases have imposed on school districts an unconditional duty to eliminate any condition that perpetuates the message of racial inferiority inherent in the policy of state-sponsored segregation. The racial identifiability of a district's schools is such a condition. Whether this 'vestige' of state-sponsored segregation will persist cannot simply be ignored at the point where a district court is contemplating the dissolution of a desegregation decree. In a district with a history of state-sponsored school segregation, racial separation, in my view, remains inherently unequal.

For Marshall, who had been the lead plaintiff's attorney in Brown v. Board of Education, the failure of court desegregation orders - and the increasingly conservative Supreme Court's unwillingness to revisit the issue - must have been frustrating. More than 20 years later, the Supreme Court has come no closer to eliminating de facto racial segregation in the public school system.