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Reading 1: History of Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, VA
In the mid-1950s, life in New Kent County was divided by a "color line." Blacks and whites were born in separate hospitals, raised and educated in separate schools, and buried in separate cemeteries. Such separation had been legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, but only if facilities for the two races were equal.
During the 1940s, the Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the state headquarters of the nation's premier civil rights organization, filed numerous lawsuits to force Virginia to "equalize" the public facilities used by blacks and whites. These suits were generally successful, however, the rulings applied specifically to the districts involved instead of addressing the overall problem. In the 1950s, NAACP lawyers switched tactics and began attacking segregation outright, arguing that separation of the races was itself unconstitutional. In 1954, this new legal strategy led to the consolidation of five cases under one name, Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. One of the five cases came from Virginia: Davis v. Prince Edward County, Virginia (1952). The Brown decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools, because separate schools could never be truly equal, was unconstitutional.
Following this historic ruling, most southern states sought to delay school integration. Virginia, in particular, resisted in several ways. Virginia legislators chose to pass a "resolution of interposition" in early 1956. This resolution declared that the Supreme Court's decision to integrate schools was incompatible with the state constitution and therefore inapplicable in Virginia. Virginia also led a "Massive Resistance" movement among southern political leaders, during which several Virginia localities closed their public schools rather than integrate them. During one such instance in Prince Edward County, white students attended private schools while many African American students moved elsewhere to attend school or did not attend school at all. For years, black parents fought through the courts to reopen the schools on an integrated basis. In Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964), the Supreme Court ordered the county to reopen its schools on an integrated basis and to desist from operating a whites-only private school system.
In the small, rural, eastern Virginia county of New Kent, ten years after Brown, blacks and whites continued to attend separate schools: the all-black George W. Watkins and the all-white New Kent. Moreover, blacks in New Kent County were well aware that their school, controlled and funded by an all-white school board and all-white county politicians, was inferior in a variety of ways. The black school lacked a gymnasium and sports fields, and textbooks and school equipment were inferior.
Calvin C. Green and his wife moved to New Kent County in 1956 from nearby Middlesex County. Almost immediately, Dr. Green became active in the local branch of the NAACP, becoming president of the local branch in 1960. Partly because of his three school-age sons, Green pressured the local school board to comply with the Brown decision in the early 1960s, to no avail. Then in 1964, at a meeting in Richmond, Green heard attorneys from the State Conference of the NAACP explain that the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened to cut off federal funding to localities which refused to develop a plan to integrate their schools. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 laid the groundwork for greater federal enforcement of school desegregation. Title VI of the Act forbade racial discrimination in any program receiving federal funds. This was a powerful new weapon for the NAACP, and the association sought to use it in Virginia (and other southern states) to bring about the integration of public schools. First, NAACP lawyers needed determined and courageous individuals to sponsor lawsuits against their local school boards. Calvin C. Green, among others, volunteered.
Green returned to New Kent County and started a petition drive among black residents. The petition urged the New Kent School Board to integrate the schools as quickly as possible. Within a short time, Green obtained the signatures of 540 local black residents and submitted the petition to the school board. The board refused to comply.
In response to the board's refusal, Green began meeting with attorneys from the state NAACP and in early 1965 helped develop a lawsuit to force the New Kent School Board to integrate the county's schools. Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in March 1965. The suit was filed in Calvin Green's youngest son's name because he had the most years ahead of him as a student in the county and was most likely to still be in school if the case took a long time.
The lawsuit was organized and argued almost entirely by the lawyers of the state NAACP. Several of Virginia's pre-eminent civil rights attorneys, including Samuel W. Tucker, Henry L. Marsh III, and Oliver White Hill participated in the process. The U.S. District Court ruled against them in 1966, as did the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Both courts ruled that a hastily developed plan, issued in August 1965 by the New Kent School Board, satisfied the requirement that it begin integrating the county's schools. Facing the lawsuit filed by Green and the possible loss of federal funds from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the school board had fashioned a new strategy to address segregation. This plan, known as a "freedom-of-choice" plan, required that black students and their parents petition for admittance to the white schools in order to attend. Such a process invited the possibility of economic and physical reprisals from whites that opposed desegregation. As a result, the "freedom-of-choice" plan did not significantly alter the racial composition of the county's two public schools.
After their loss in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the NAACP chose to take the Green case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In October 1967, NAACP attorneys argued that the county school board's "freedom-of-choice" plan illegally placed the burden of integrating the county's schools on blacks themselves. They also argued that the county sought to maintain a biracial school system by busing some black students up to 20 miles to the all-black George W. Watkins School, though the predominantly white New Kent School was much closer.
In May 1968, more than 14 years after the original Brown decision, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia. The Court found that the county had been operating a dual system of schools as ruled unconstitutional in Brown, down to "every facet of school operations--faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities."¹ Its 1954-55 desegregation decisions put an "affirmative duty" on school boards to abolish dual schools and to establish "unitary" systems. It disapproved the county's "freedom-of-choice" school plan for this case. Justice William J. Brennan, writing for the Court, explained: "The burden on a school board today is to come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work, and promises realistically to work now." The Court ordered the local school board to develop a new plan to "convert promptly to a system without a 'white' school and a 'Negro' school, but just schools." It also ordered that the U.S. District Court maintain oversight of the case and the school board's plan to ensure that integration would occur in the near future. Shortly thereafter, the New Kent School Board converted the George W. Watkins School into New Kent Elementary School and shifted all the county's high school students to the formerly all-white New Kent School making it New Kent High School. Green and the NAACP had won a very important victory.
Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist later referred to the Green case (in 1972) as a "drastic extension of Brown."² The case, though based in New Kent County, affected school systems throughout the nation. It was in Green v. County School Board that the U.S. Supreme Court announced the duty of school boards to affirmatively eliminate all vestiges of state-imposed segregation, thus extending Brown's prohibition of segregation into a requirement of integration. Within only a few years, the nation witnessed the culmination of a key phase of the early civil rights movement--the integration of the nation's public schools.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why do you think so many southern whites fought against school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s? Why were many of the local blacks equally determined to integrate the county's schools?
2. List three cases important to the school desegregation decisions decided by the Supreme Court in the 1950s and 1960s and describe their significance. What were the results of each case?
3. What is the NAACP? What role did the organization play in the Green case?
4. What was the "freedom-of-choice" plan and why did the New Kent School Board implement this plan? Do you think the name of the plan accurately described how it worked in practice? Why or why not?
5. Why was the Brown decision not strong enough to fully integrate schools? What did the Green decision do that the earlier cases did not?
Reading 1 was compiled from Susan Cianci Salvatore, "New Kent School and George W. Watkins School" (New Kent County, Virginia) National Historic Landmark Nomination, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2001; Brian Daugherity, "The NAACP and the Campaign for School Desegregation in Virginia" (Ph.D. dissertation in-progress, The College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA); Interview with Dr. Calvin C. Green, October 9, 2001, New Kent County, VA; Lassister and Lewis, eds. The Moderates' Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia), 1998; Robert Pratt, The Color of Their Skin: Education and Race in Richmond Virginia 1954-89 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia), 1992; and Susan Cianci Salvatore, Waldo Martin, Vicki Ruiz, Patricia Sullivan, and Harvard Sitkoff, Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States Theme Study (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service), 2000.
¹ Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430 (1968), at 435.