Breaking Down Segregation

Eliminating segregation in the United States has proved to be a long and difficult process. Presidential actions and court decisions were important early steps. While segregation codified in law no longer exists, de facto segregation based on income and housing patterns continues. 

Executive actions

The first meaningful gains in civil rights came after World War II. In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered an end to segregation in the military and the federal bureaucracy. Segregated units in the U.S. Army were disbanded within three years, and the Korean War became the first conflict in which blacks and whites truly fought side by side. 

Truman ran into difficulty when he tried to push his civil rights agenda through Congress. A federal anti-lynching law, the outlawing of poll taxes, and the creation of a civil rights commission were opposed by Southern Democrats. The Courts proved to be more willing to look at these issues. 

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

In 1950, Oliver Brown sued in federal court over the segregation of the school system of Topeka, Kansas. The Supreme Court's 1954 decision in the case, which held that separate schools were inherently unequal, was important for several reasons. Topeka was not a Southern city; the Court hoped to limit backlash in the South by using a case outside the region. 

However, the Court ordered the desegregation of the schools, not their integration. Although the terms are often used synonymously, they actually have different meanings. Desegregation refers to eliminating laws that call for segregation; integration means actively designing government policies to mix different races. The Brown decision did not call for integration but demanded desegregation "with all deliberate speed." This language provided no specific timetable or direction in how to achieve the goal, so desegregation took decades to become a reality in many school districts. When it became clear that residential segregation would keep schools racially distinct, however, the Court began to endorse active integration policies, such as busing children to schools outside their neighborhoods, to achieve racial balance in every institution. 

Issues in school desegregation

It was not until the early 1970s that the federal courts approved such remedies as busing and racial quotas. These applied, however, only to districts that had practiced legal segregation and not in instances in which segregation was the result of where different groups lived. Numerous lawsuits resulted as African Americans and other racial minorities tried to provide evidence of past discrimination. Busing, which was the main vehicle for ending segregation, was strongly attacked in both the North and the South. The imposition of busing often led to white flight (that is, white students leaving the public schools for private schools).