Top of page

Collection Civil Rights History Project

School Segregation and Integration

The massive effort to desegregate public schools across the United States was a major goal of the Civil Rights Movement. Since the 1930s, lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had strategized to bring local lawsuits to court, arguing that separate was not equal and that every child, regardless of race, deserved a first-class education. These lawsuits were combined into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation in schools in 1954. But the vast majority of segregated schools were not integrated until many years later. Many interviewees of the Civil Rights History Project recount a long, painful struggle that scarred many students, teachers, and parents.

Three years before Brown v. Board in November 1951, students in a civics class at the segregated black Adkin High School in Kinston, North Carolina, discussed what features an ideal school should have for a class assignment. When they realized that the local white high school indeed had everything they had imagined, the seeds were planted for a student-led protest. Without the assistance from any adults, these students confronted the local school board about the blatant inequality of local schools. When the board ignored their request for more funding, the students met by themselves to plan what to do next. In a group interview with these former students, John Dudley remembers, “So, that week, leading to Monday, we strategized. And we had everybody on board, 720 students. We told them not to tell your parents or your teacher what’s going on. And do you believe to this day, 2013, nobody has ever told me that an adult knew what was going on. Kids.” They decided on a coded phrase that was read during morning announcements. Every student in the school walked out, picked up placards that had been made in advance, and marched downtown to protest. The students refused to go back to school for a week, and eighteen months later, Adkin High School was renovated and given a brand-new gymnasium. It would remain segregated until 1970, however.

Desegregation was not always a battle in every community in the South. Lawrence Guyot, who later became a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, grew up in Pass Christian, a city on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was influenced by the strong labor unions in the shipyard industry and the Catholic Church. He explains how the Catholic schools were desegregated there: “The Catholic Church in 1957 or '58 made a decision that they were going to desegregate the schools.  They did it this way.  The announcement was we have two programs.  We have excommunication and we have integration.  Make your choice by Friday.  Now there was violence going on in Louisiana.  Nothing happened on the Gulf Coast.  I learned firsthand that institutions can really have an impact on social policy.” 

In an interview about his mother, civil rights activist Gayle Jenkins, Willie “Chuck” Jenkins describes how she demanded that he would be the plaintiff in a school desegregation suit, Jenkins v. Bogalusa School Board in Louisiana. He became the first African American student to attend the white Bogalusa Junior High School in 1967 and remembers how he had one foot in each world, but was increasingly alienated from both: “And I caught a lot of slack, like, from the black community, because they used to say, ‘Oh, you think you’re something because you’re going to the white school.’  They didn’t know I was catching holy hell at the white school.  I had no friends, you know.  So, it was just always a conflict.” But in the end, he thinks it was worth it. He states, “But it was hard, but you know what?  If I had it to do all over again, I would do it exactly the same way.  Because it was a cause that was well worth the outcome, even though I feel like people in Bogalusa are still not as accepting as they could be.” The high school continued to have a separate white prom and a black prom until very recently. But his mother, Gayle Jenkins, would serve on the Bogalusa School Board for twenty-seven years.

Julia Matilda Burns describes her experiences as a teacher, parent, and school board member in Holmes County, Mississippi. Her husband was an active civil rights worker and her job as a teacher was threatened when she associated with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When her son and other African American children attempted to integrate a school in Tchula in 1965, it was burned down twice. The local white community started their own private white academy, a common plan to evade integration across the South. She continued to teach in a public school and discusses the difficulties rural African American children and young adults face in getting an equal education today.

While Brown v. Board of Education and many other legal cases broke down the official barriers for African Americans to gain an equal education, achieving this ideal has never been easy or simple. The debate continues today among policy makers, educators, and parents about how to close the achievement gap between minority and white children. Ruby Sales, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member who later became the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Spirt House, points out that few people look to the past for answers to our current problems in education: “…We have been dealing with the counter-culture of education, and what might we learn from that counter-culture during segregation that would enable black students not to be victims in public schools today. And one of the things that disturbed me so tremendously – and this is about narrative again: these southern black teachers created outstanding students and leaders. And many of them still exist. And no one has bothered to ask them, “How did you do it? What might we learn from you? What were your strategies? How did you deal with complicated situations? How did you invigorate young people to believe that they could make a difference even when the white world said that they couldn’t?”