Teaching Civic Ideals Using Primary Sources: School Desegregation, Judicial Power, and Federalism

This post was written by Jen Reidel, the 2019-20 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

In the landmark ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “…the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  A year after Brown v. Board, Justice Felix Frankfurter in his draft opinion of Brown II established a timeframe for integration “with all deliberate speed.”  While the words of both cases legally overruled the “separate but equal” precedent established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the integration of public schools immediately following Brown was anything but speedy. In 1964, Justice William O. Douglas’ per curiam opinion notes  in Griffin et al v. County School Board of Prince Edward County et al (1964) highlights the Court’s frustration with integration delays, stating that, “this case is one of the school segregation cases which we dealt with over a decade in Brown v. Board of Education…our mandate in [the] Brown case has never been implemented.”

Civics and U.S. History teachers often teach Brown and its enforcement at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, as a victory for democracy and federalism. The narrative frames a state defying the federal government in following a Supreme Court ruling and the president responding with military force resulting in admission of the “Little Rock Nine” to Central High School. It is tempting to end the story there. However, through primary source inquiry and discussion, teachers can present a more nuanced telling of school desegregation and the complexity of state-federal relationships.

Ike’s TV & Radio Speech about Little Rock, Sep. 24, 1957

Central High School, Little Rock, AR. Thomas J. O’Halloran, 1958

Show students Ike’s TV and Radio Speech about Little Rock and the photograph of the almost empty hallway at Central High School. Encourage students to consider:

  1. Why is President Eisenhower addressing the nation?
  2. What action did he take as president?
  3. What does the image of the hallway reveal about how some states chose to respond to President Eisenhower’s action?

Describe for students why Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus initially chose to defy the Brown ruling through assertion of states’ rights. Inform students that despite the fact that Central High School desegregated in the 1957-58 school year, the following year officials opted to close schools rather than continue to follow federal integration mandates.

Place students in groups to analyze photos Little Rock, 1959. Mob marching from capitol to Central High, Little Rock, 1959. Rally at state capitol, Little Rock, Ark. Attempts to reopen schools, and Little Rock, [Arkansas]. Filming high school classes using a jigsaw strategy. Each student should study their assigned image and be ready to share with the group how their photo represents tension between federal desegregation rulings and state responses.

School desegregation history represents the intersection of federal, state, and judicial influences on American school and racial culture. It testifies to the fact that court rulings are only effective if enforced and followed and offers students a complex case study in federalism and individual rights.

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