The road to school desegregation

For years, many public schools separated children based on their race. Here’s how that changed so that kids of all races could go to school together.

Six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked up the steps to her new school on November 14, 1960. It was her first day at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ruby’s mother had walked with her, but they weren’t alone

Four U.S. federal marshals were with Ruby, too. They were there to protect her from the angry crowd of people at the school who didn’t want Ruby there. Why? She was the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.

At the time, many schools—especially in Southern states—were segregated, meaning that Black children attended different schools from white kids. Even though this had been against the law since 1954, it was still happening at William Frantz Elementary when she integrated, or attended school with children of different races.

People had been fighting against school segregation for many years, ever since the first laws to separate Black and white students were passed after the Civil War. It would take many brave people—including children like Ruby—to make people see that the laws did not provide equal education for all children and needed to change.

A long road ahead

Before the Civil War (1861-1865), enslaved children were not allowed to attend school. Soon after the war ended, the U.S. government required former slaveholding states that had fought against the Union to educate both white and Black children. Then, in 1868, Congress passed the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed every citizen equal rights and protection under the law—including equal access to education.

Not everyone agreed with these decisions. Southern leaders did not want Black people to have the same rights as white people. So most Southern states adopted a group of laws in the late 1870s, called Jim Crow laws, to segregate Black and white people. Throughout the South, nearly all public places—restaurants, parks, movie theaters, trains, swimming pools, schools, and even drinking fountains—were separated by race. It was because of these new laws that Black children could not attend the same schools as white children in the South.

Separate but not equal

Despite the 14th Amendment, Southern states were able to legally segregate Black and white children because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1896 called Plessy vs. Ferguson. After Homer Plessy, a Black man, tried to sit in a whites-only train car, the court ruled that as long as Black and white people were treated equally, they could be separated by race. This became known as “separate but equal.”

But “separate but equal" wasn’t truly equal—conditions in places meant for Black people were usually much worse than those for white people. For instance, Black schools often had leaking roofs, sagging floors, and windows without glass. They were also overcrowded, with too many students per teacher and not enough desks or books. If books were available, they were old, outdated ones from white schools.

Black families knew that if they wanted their children to have an equal education that these laws needed to change. And the only way to do that was through the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hope for equality

In 1951, eight-year-old Linda Brown was not allowed to attend an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. Her father, Oliver Brown, did not think this was fair and filed a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education.

Around the same time, four other lawsuits challenging school segregation had been filed, so in 1952, the Supreme Court combined all of them into one. The justices would decide once and for all if schools could separate students based on the color of their skin.

Thurgood Marshall—who would later become the first African American Supreme Court justice—represented the five children and their families in a case called Brown vs. Board of Education. He argued that segregation was not equal and was actually harmful to children. The court agreed. On May 17, 1954, every single justice decided that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, which meant that separating children in public schools by race went against what had been outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

School segregation was now against the law. States were ordered to begin desegregating their public schools. But changes were slow to come.

The Little Rock Nine

Some school districts defied the 1954 order by not integrating immediately or simply doing nothing. Other school boards purposefully delayed integration by years by integrating only one grade each year. Other white parents refused to send their children to integrated schools or held angry protests that were sometimes violent to prevent Black children from registering.

To help move integration along, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) decided to recruit a group of nine Black students to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The teenagers gathered on September 4, 1957, to enter the school. But the governor had called in the Arkansas National Guard, which blocked them from entering the building.

The story made headlines across America, and many people were outraged that Southern states were still defying the Supreme Court ruling. A few weeks later, on September 25, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort the students—now known as the Little Rock Nine—into the school. This time the students' integration efforts were successful.

The fight continues

After the Little Rock Nine, more and more Black families courageously started sending their children to all-white schools. It wasn’t an easy decision for parents to make, since kids often faced bullying and loneliness. For instance, Ruby Bridges often sat in class with only her teacher because white parents didn’t want their children in school with a Black student. Even Vice President Kamala Harris was part of a program in 1970 to bus children far from their neighborhoods to integrate schools in Berkeley, California.

Racial inequalities in the nation’s school system still exist today, more than 65 years after the Brown decision. Schools in wealthier, mostly white neighborhoods sometimes have better technology, higher-quality books, and smaller class sizes; schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods with more people of color sometimes have older or broken computers, overcrowded classes, and buildings in need of repair.

But people continue to speak out against these inequalities and fight for equal education for all students. As former President Barack Obama said, “In the years to come, we must continue striving toward equal opportunities for all our children. … Because when children learn and play together, they grow, build, and thrive together.”