If school integration in the South were to continue at its 1959 rate, it would take four thousand years for all Southern Negro children to achieve their right to equal educational opportunity. Between 1954—when the Supreme Court ruled that such equal opportunity was in fact guaranteed them by the Constitution—and 1958, a total of 376,000 Southern Negro schoolchildren were enrolled in integrated schools, and almost all of these were in the border states. In 1959, the total of 376,000 went up by only 511 additional children—despite the desegregation of 87 more school districts. To date, counting the progress initially made in the border states, only 6 per cent of the South’s Negro schoolchildren are attending integrated schools—and further progress has now been slowed to a trickle.
In its efforts to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling and prevent or retard integration, the South has tried many approaches: school-closing laws, “interposition,” scholarship aid for those parents who preferred to send their children to all-white schools, anti-NAACP laws, economic reprisal, intimidation, and violence. But only one technique—the pupil placement law—has met with substantial success in the courts. The technique is now clearly emerging as the South’s major weapon in maintaining school segregation.
The placement laws are designed to perpetuate segregation by integrating the fewest possible number of Negro students whenever federal action forces the issue. The first law was enacted by North Carolina on March 30, 1955, and refined by amendments the following year. Virginia passed the second placement law on September 29, 1956. And in 1957, after the North Carolina law had withstood a major court challenge, the other Southern states rushed to get on the bandwagon. At this writing, the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, and the city of Atlanta, Georgia, have all adopted placement laws, and it appears that other states and cities will follow suit.
The clear intention of non-compliance and defiance is being revealed in the hardcore Southern states; there the pupil placement laws are an actual and potential tool of great efficacy. In Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida, only about 500 Negro students out of a total of 800,000 have been integrated—a tiny fraction of one per cent. But even more significantly, in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, of a combined total of 1,400,000 Negro students, none have been integrated; nor do the leaders of any of these states intend to integrate a single school. Because the constitutionality of the placement laws has been upheld, it is thus almost certain that no additional major integration—comparable, say, to that which occurred during the first several years after the Supreme Court ruling—can now take place for at least a number of years. These facts no doubt deepen Negro unrest; but they also pose for the nation as a whole the question of whether it seriously intends to assist the Negroes in securing the rights they thought they had won in 1954.
The specific provisions and requirements of the placement laws vary widely from state to state, but the purpose is the same everywhere: the establishment of machinery that will control the school assignment of pupils in such a way as to prevent Negro children from transferring to white schools, or that will limit such transfers, whenever total segregation becomes untenable, to a token number. Theoretically, the laws apply to the placement of all pupils, black and white, in all schools; but actually, intended as tools of racial discrimination, they are not invoked until a Negro pupil applies for a transfer to a white school. The board of that particular white school receives the application, and within a month or two renders its decision—which, in almost every case, refuses the request on the grounds that the applicant does not meet the criteria specified by the local placement law. These criteria are extremely diverse in degree of vagueness and subjectivity; and none refers overtly to race. Ranging from psychological to economic considerations, they include : the psychological qualification of the pupil for both the instruction and the milieu of the white school; the effects of the pupil’s admission upon the academic progress of other students; the effect of the admission upon prevailing academic standards; the suitability of established curricula for particular pupils; the psychological effect on the pupil of attendance at the school; the adequacy of a pupil’s preparation; the possibility of breaches of the peace or ill will or economic retaliation within the community; the possibility or threat of friction or disorder among the pupils or other persons involved; “sociological and psychological factors as will prevent any condition of socioeconomic class consciousness among pupils attending any given school”; and, finally, “other relevant matters.”
To oppose the school board’s decision, an applicant must utilize the machinery for administrative appeal provided by most of the placement laws. Several months are usually needed to exhaust all these possibilities; thus, in most cases, a child is kept from attending the white school for the year he had applied simply by default. When the final administrative decision is at last made, it too is most often negative. But only after this decision can the applicant turn to the courts. There he must prove that the authorities have applied the placement criteria illegally—he must prove, in other words, that he was excluded from a particular school because of his race. More time is consumed in filing a complaint, waiting for the date of the hearing, and then waiting again (approximately six weeks) for the judge’s decision. Dilatory motions, frequently employed by school authorities, can consume as much as six or seven months. If the judge finds that the applicant has failed to prove discrimination, he must then appeal to a higher court. On such appeals, the final verdict—which, of course, may not grant the transfer—can take two or three years.
Several actual cases will illustrate the difficulties, the expenditures of money and time, that are involved in applying for transfer under the current placement laws. Last summer, in Durham, North Carolina, the parents of 160 Negro children applied for transfers for them (a large number of these applicants were secured through the ceaseless and courageous efforts of the local NAACP). The school board found that, according to the placement laws, none of the applicants qualified. The parents appealed the decisions with the help of an NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund lawyer. The school board granted a hearing in October, after the school year had begun. Not all the parents—about half their number—were able to attend on the night of the hearing, and each parent who did attend was interrogated. The board subsequently announced that the children of all those parents who failed to appear were automatically disqualified. However, it also rejected the applications of all the children whose parents were there, for, said the board, not one pupil met the criteria of the law.
Up to 1959, Virginia’s state placement board had passed on 500,000 pupil enrollments without finding a single Negro student who qualified for a transfer to a white school. When, in 1959, an incredulous federal judge in Norfolk threatened the board with a contempt action, the board gravely went over its files and finally found four Negroes in Norfolk who qualified; the court was satisfied. This year, 1960, the board approved the transfers of another sixteen Negro students among school systems in three Virginia communities, two of which had already been desegregated by court order.
Records of pupil placement actions in Alexandria, Virginia, produced in connection with a parents’ suit, reveal the detailed workings of placement laws. If an applicant’s IQ was below the norm for his age, he was turned down on the grounds that the work in the white school would be too difficult for him. But if the applicant’s IQ was above the average for his age, he was also turned down—because he would be “happier” in the “position of outstanding leadership” that he enjoyed in the lower-norm Negro school. If, finally, the applicant’s IQ was normal for his age, other grounds for exclusion were adduced. In Case Number 4 in the series, for example, where the mental age of the applicant was found to be commensurate with his chronological age, the ruling stated:
He [the applicant] lives at the west intersection of North Columbus Street and Powhatan Street—geographically he is equidistant from Houston [the Negro school] and Ficklin [the white school]. It is estimated that the actual distances which have to be walked, because of the way the streets run, the distance to Houston is somewhat shorter [sic] .
For this reason, the applicant was denied admission to Ficklin school.
The Little Rock school board, which began its third year of integrated classes this year, has placed thirteen Negro students in Central and Hall High Schools—four more than when the schools were integrated three years ago. (As a matter of fact, the number had dropped to seven in 1959.) In June 1960 the board had 74 Negro reassignment applications for the fall 1960 semester. The board has already announced that it did not plan to permit any desegregation on the junior-high level, which of course means that it does not intend to discover any qualified applicants among those seeking entrance at that level. At this writing, the board has reviewed and rejected 39 of the 74 transfer applications.
Marion A. Wright, vice president of the Southern Regional Council, has called pupil placement laws “legalistic horseplay” to keep Negro children out of white schools. The NAACP regards many features of the laws as unconstitutional, and maintains further that in theory and practice they place unwarranted and usually insuperable burdens on the average Negro child seeking the educational equality supposedly guaranteed to him by both the Constitution and the 1954 Supreme Court ruling. With this view many legal experts agree, and in fact, the success of the laws in the courts has aroused considerable astonishment among the experts. In 1957 a suit was brought by a group of North Carolina parents asking that their children not be required to go through the procedures of the state’s pupil placement law to secure educational equality. The Fourth Circuit Court ruled against them, and the Supreme Court affirmed the decision. A second major test occurred in 1958 when a suit testing Alabama’s pupil placement law came before the Supreme Court. The Court, in a one-sentence opinion, upheld the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that the provisions of the law were in themselves constitutional. (The Fifth Circuit has also found Arkansas’ law constitutional on its face.) In 1959 the Supreme Court denied another North Carolina suit which also sought to gain admission for a Negro child to a white school without resorting to full procedure of the placement law. And in a third North Carolina case, the Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s ruling that because Montgomery County, North Carolina, was operating under a pupil placement law, it did not have to devise a general desegregation plan.
The Supreme Court’s upholding of the Alabama pupil placement law was profoundly disillusioning to many Southern Negroes. To begin with, placement laws from their inception had prevented “class action” suits. The cases that resulted in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling were “class actions”—that is, the Court’s decision became a binding rule for all cases. But under pupil placement laws, each individual aspirant for educational equality is on his own, and is pitted against all the power and pressure that the community and state can bring against him. Even if he finally wins in court, the next applicant faces the same hurdles and barriers. The Supreme Court’s decision affirmed this state of affairs.
Lawyers and civil rights experts believed that the decision also had expressed or implied the following:
- That all applicants must complete the full administrative procedures specified by such laws before seeking relief in the courts;
- That as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, pupil placement laws constitute a statewide or community-wide integration program; and, finally,
- That the courts would not require general desegregation programs where pupil placement laws were in force.
In practice, the constellation of both legal and social power arrayed against the individual Negro pupil and his family prevents most from even applying. Many of those communities in which pupil placement laws are in effect stand ready to apply the severest economic pressures against any Negro parents who file applications on behalf of their children. Moreover, children who win in court face, at best, cool receptions when they come to school—in the lower grades especially—and even the most courageous Negro parents hesitate to visit such a situation upon their children. Thus, it is often difficult for Negro leadership to get any parents to file applications. And to further diminish their number, when the NAACP does make an organized attempt to secure at least token integration, it fights primarily for those applications which indicate the most promise of establishing the discriminatory intention of the laws.
Among the effects within the Southern Negro community of the placement laws and the ensuing various court decisions has been a reaction against the old liberal-legal approach to securing civil rights which has dominated its thinking for a generation. The NAACP, the champion of this approach, accordingly has lost stature in the eyes of many Negroes. Actually, of course, one of the purposes of the placement laws has been to “break the NAACP’s back” by imposing an impossible burden of litigation as the price for even modest progress in school integration. It was the NAACP’s long and relentless legal pressure in the first place, after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, that brought the various placement laws into being; and now the NAACP is making use of every legal means to weaken these laws and ultimately destroy their effectiveness. But meanwhile, the pupil placement roadblock remains substantially effective, and Negro unrest has grown rapidly. It hardly seems too much to say that the lunch counter sit-ins were engendered by the legal experts who wrote the South’s pupil placement laws.
In some instances, though, the Circuit Courts are already beginning to take a closer look at the pupil placement laws. Several recent court rulings suggest that the wall created by the Supreme Court’s favorable 1958 decision on the Alabama statute may not be impenetrable. In 1959, the Fifth Circuit, in a Florida case, held that pupil placement laws did not automatically relieve local school boards from the obligation of beginning a “reasonable start toward full compliance” with the 1954 school decision. In another Florida case this year, the court also ruled that pupil placement criteria must be applied to all students in order to be constitutional—not just to Negro pupils seeking transfer to white schools. In another 1960 case in the Fourth Circuit, the court held that Negroes need not necessarily exhaust administrative procedures under pupil placement laws to seek a decree for a positive desegregation program. In Alexandria, Virginia, the Fourth Circuit warned against the application of the pupil placement criteria solely to Negroes seeking transfer, and further warned against use of the laws to perpetuate separate white and Negro school districts. Thus, these recent rulings suggest conflicts of fact and interpretation which may ultimately result in Supreme Court decisions of broadly applicable rules of law.
Yet meanwhile, the placement laws remain in force with court blessing. Six years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violate the Constitution, the Negro who wants equality of educational opportunity for his child often stands substantially alone. In the next few years, as the intention of full defiance or token compliance becomes the clear position of the hard-core South, the nation will find itself coming closer to a genuine decision on whether or not it really intends the Supreme Court’s ruling of 1954 to become the law of the land. The effect of the pupil placement laws is to focus and sharpen this decision.