Civil Rights in Education: Law and History

In the struggle for civil rights advancement, advocates focus on specific areas such as housing and employment. Education is another point of emphasis because it can affect many other areas. For instance, individuals who earn college degrees generally earn more money over the course of their lifetime and have greater accessibility to opportunities in society.

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools and public colleges and universities. But the legal framework for anti-discrimination laws affecting public school students was laid a decade earlier.

Federal Enforcement of the Brown Decision

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But implementation of the Court's decision went slowly, with massive resistance from the states especially in the South. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the 9 black children who were enrolled in Central High School from attending the school. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school. These students were prevented from attending the school until President Eisenhower made the National Guard part of the federal army and also sent 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to protect these 9 children. In September 1958, Governor Faubus closed all the schools in Little Rock to prevent any more black children from attending white schools. The schools remained closed until August 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them re-opened.

The Struggle Against Segregation in Higher Education

Prior to the Brown decision, the Supreme Court had made favorable decisions regarding desegregation in graduate schools. Additionally, two years after Brown, the Court applied the equal access principles to higher education. Despite these advancements, implementation of integration continued to be problematic at all educational levels.

In January 1961, James Meredith, an African American, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. Officials at the school returned his application. Mr. Meredith took his case to court. On September 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to attend the University of Mississippi. The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, personally blocked Mr. Meredith from registering at the University even after the Supreme Court ruled.

Finally, on September 30, 1962, a Sunday, Mr. Meredith was escorted onto the campus by federal marshals and Civil Rights Division lawyers. Stationed on or near the campus to protect him were 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 US Border Patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards. Within an hour, the federal forces were attacked by a mob that would grow to number 2,000 and who fought them with guns, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The marshals had been ordered not to shoot and so used tear gas to try to stop the rioting.

The violence continued until President Kennedy sent 16,000 federal troops to the campus. When it was over, 2 people were dead, 28 marshals had been shot, 160 people were injured, and James Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.

Despite the historical significance and national attention of violent responses to school integration, developing equal educational opportunities continues to be a significant civil rights issue. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that educational institutions have a compelling interest in a diverse student body.

Get Help with Your Discrimination Claim

Getting civil rights protection in education was a significant focus during the civil rights movement. If you suspect that you are a victim of discrimination in education based on your race, national origin, or other protected characteristic, then do not hesitate in taking action. You might have a valid discrimination claim. Get help from an attorney with experience in discrimination issues.

Next Steps

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