Last updated: May 9, 2020
The New Kent School and the George W. Watkins School, located in New Kent County, Virginia, are associated with the most significant public school desegregation case the U.S. Supreme Court decided after Brown v. Board of Education. The 1968 Green v. New Kent County decision defined the standards by which the Court judged whether a violation of the U.S Constitution had been remedied in school desegregation cases. Henceforth, a decade of massive resistance to school desegregation in the South from 1955 to 1964, would be replaced by an era of massive integration from 1968 to 1973, as the Court placed an affirmative duty on school boards to integrate schools. The New Kent and Watkins schools illustrate the typical characteristics of a southern rural school system that achieved token desegregation following Brown and stand as a symbol to the modern civil rights movement of 1954 to 1970 efforts to expand the rights of African Americans in the United States.
In the second Brown decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1955, public school systems were ordered to desegregate "with all deliberate speed;" leaving the pace and method up to state legislation and district courts. Cooperation between the Federal courts and local authorities in this process was not forthcoming. Beginning with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Attorney General had authority to file school desegregation cases (Title IV) and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) was empowered to withhold Federal funds from school districts that continued to discriminate (Title VI). One of the ways in which school districts could qualify for Federal financial assistance again was to submit a plan for voluntary desegregation. Acceptable plans were either freedom of choice, geographic attendance areas, or a combination of both. Under freedom of choice, students chose which school they wished to attend.
In March 1965, black plaintiffs in New Kent County in Virginia filed suit in the U.S. District Court to end the maintenance of separate schools for the races. The Watkins and New Kent schools are located in a small, rural school district in eastern Virginia. Both schools spanned elementary to high school. The county school board, supported by Virginia law, had failed to desegregate the schools for 10 years after Brown. Although the county was residentially integrated, all white students attended the New Kent School and all black students attended the Watkins School. In August 1965, facing the loss of Federal funds posed by the Civil Rights Act, the school board adopted a freedom of choice plan whereby students entering the first or eighth grades had to select one of the two schools to attend. After three years of the freedom of choice plan in New Kent County, no whites attended Watkins and 155 African Americans attended New Kent, leaving 85 percent of African Americans in the system at Watkins.
Green v. County School Board proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court along with two companion cases. In their lawsuit, the black plaintiffs argued that the freedom of choice plan in practice operated to perpetuate the racially dual school system. 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." Its 1954-55 desegregation decisions put an "affirmative duty" on school boards to abolish dual schools and to establish "unitary" systems. Rational for the Court's decision were factors identified in the 1965 to 1966 reports of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights which found that freedom of choice was unlikely to work because of fear of retaliation and hostility from the white community, harassment by white classmates, exclusion for school activites, inability to afford the special fees at these school and the level of dress expected, improvements in facilities and equipment at all-black schools, and public officials who influenced parents to keep their children in all-black schools. The Green case was typical of the findings of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that cast doubt on the effectiveness of freedom of choice plans in integrating schools. The move from prohibiting segregation to requiring integration began.