The Challenge of Peaceful Desegregation
An excerpt from a 1969 statement by both Robert H. Finch, Secretary of the Department of Health Education and Welfare, and John N. Mitchell, Attorney General, gives us a perspective on the challenges still facing the nationwide integration of schools since the court ruling of Brown vs. The Board of Education. By 1969, fifteen long years had passed since the Supreme Court ordered that segregated schools were illegal, and that school districts must desegregate with ‘all deliberate speed’, and President Nixon’s election would prove pivotal in the fight for civil rights.
Little had been done to alleviate the injustice of racially segregated schools before Richard Nixon’s election, but by the time this memo was written significant progress had been made. Finch makes clear in this memo that friction was inevitably a result of disrupting the deeply rooted status quo. Full implementation was impossible and 96 school districts that were unable to meet the 1969-70 desegregation deadline made an agreement with the federal government to desegregate within the time frame of an extra year. The one year extension was viewed by many of President Nixon’s opponents as a concession to institutionalized racism by the administration, but despite these difficulties a full 2994 school districts in the 17 Southern and Border States had undergone complete and voluntary desegregation by the 69-70 deadline. A further 369 districts were under court order by the private litigants as well as the Department of Justice to desegregate, possibly with the assistance of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).
Despite successes some problem districts persisted in segregation and refused to negotiate. As a response to this perpetuation of institutionalized racism the federal government cut off all funding to these 121 districts. 263 additional districts faced the potential of federal funds being cut within a year if they failed to comply. These districts represented
“…a steadily shrinking core of resistance. In Most Southern and Border school districts, our citizens have conscientiously confronted the problem of desegregation, and have come into voluntary compliance under the law.”
After addressing the official problems taken by non-compliant districts Finch goes further by addressing De Facto segregation as it was perpetuated in society across the nation.
“Racial discrimination is prevalent in our industrial metropolitan areas…Segregation and discrimination in areas outside the south are generally de facto problems stemming from housing patterns and denial of adequate funds and attention to ghetto schools.”
This acknowledges the sad fact that racism was not just a problem on the books, but was being perpetuated in the ways in which our society worked, even where no segregation laws existed. In this statement Finch and Mitchell announce a federal program to insist on desegregation of faculties and school districts, with further assistance to try and ensure equal educational opportunity. Thus, in this brief excerpt, we can see the official position taken by the administration as President Nixon and his cabinet faced the problem not only of official and legally enforced segregation, but of racism and segregation perpetuated in society itself.