Supreme Court's Retreat
from Brown's Principles and the
Resegregation of Public
The tide turned against desegregation of public schools in Milliken v.
In Milliken, the Supreme Court considered the
constitutionality of a federal court order imposing a
multidistrict desegregation order encompassing the city of
Detroit and fifty eight surrounding suburban communities.
The order sought to remedy de facto segregation in
the Detroit public schools though there was no evidence that
the suburban school districts had engaged in de jure
The district court found that, given the racial composition
of Detroit’s urban and suburban areas, integrating students
from the inner city with those from the surrounding suburbs
would be the only realistic way to integrate the school
The Court of Appeals affirmed reasoning that excluding
suburban school districts from desegregation efforts would
render any desegregation within the Detroit city limits
ineffective because most of Detroit’s public schools were
black and most of the suburban schools are white.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that the scope of
integration remedies is limited to individual school
districts that previously engaged in de jure
Because the plaintiffs presented no evidence of prior de
jure discrimination in the suburban school districts,
the Court held than an inter-district remedy extended beyond
the district court’s remedial powers.
More recent Supreme Court decisions have shifted the focus
away from discrimination and segregation choosing instead to
focus on the intended temporary nature of district court
supervision of desegregation in public schools.
Specifically, in Freeman v. Pitts, the Court noted
that the goal of district courts is to remedy violations but
also “to restore state and local authorities to the control
of a school system that is operating in compliance with the
In Freeman, the court held
that a district court may relinquish its supervision over
aspects of a school system where there has been compliance
with the remedial desegregation order, even if there has
been noncompliance in other areas.
In essence, the Freeman decision enables school
systems to return to segregation without violating the law
so long as they demonstrate that they have made “good faith
effort” to comply with the requirements of desegregation
plans to the extent they have done everything “practicable”
to remedy the effects of a dual system of segregated
The regression of integration and emphasis on local control
culminated in Missouri v. Jenkins.
In Jenkins the Court held that remedies implemented
by the district court went beyond the scope of its remedial
Specifically, the Court determined that although student
achievement levels in the district were below the national
norm, improved achievement on test scores is not necessarily
required for the State to achieve partial unitary status as
to the quality education programs…”
The Court further opinioned that several factors which
affected test performance of minority students were outside
of the school board’s control, and that remedies should not
be guided by factors not a result of segregation.
Jenkins effectively changed the landscape of school
desegregation cases in that it expressly pronounced the
judiciary’s predilection of maintaining local school
district autonomy over racial integration.
Over fifty years have passed since
the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education
decision eradicated de jure segregation in America’s
public schools. Persistent opposition to Brown by
those committed to the maintenance of racial segregation
delayed effective desegregation nearly a decade. Throughout
the years, opposition to Brown has taken a variety of
forms. Most notably, the Supreme Court which once ardently
sustained Brown’s egalitarian proclamations
ultimately abandoned the decision’s goals and instead
rendered case law to ensure control of public schools be
returned to local boards. The Supreme Court’s desertion of
integrative ideals trickled to the nation’s federal courts
as they fervently dissolved desegregation schemes in public
schools without regard to whether integration had actually
been achieved. In light of the Supreme Court’s retreat
from the goals of Brown and growing resistance of federal courts to
enforce desegregation orders, it is plausible that we
have reached the end of the desegregation era.
Brown v. Board of
349 U.S. 294 (1955); W. E. B. Du Bois, "Does the
Negro Need Separate Schools?," Journal of Negro
Education, 4 (July 1935), in The
Oxford W. E. B. Du
ed. Eric J. Sundquist (New York, 1996), 431.