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Published: June 28, 2011

Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

A 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a desegregation plan allowing black and white students in New Kent County to choose whether or not they wanted to attend formerly all-black or all-white schools. The case was the first of three that effectively ended widespread local resistance in the South to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA. That decision had declared racial segregation of schools unconstitutional and ordered schools throughout the South to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” Despite the Court order and others from a plethora of federal district courts, hundreds of southern school districts developed plans that seemed to provide for desegregation, on paper, but in practice produced no actual change in the racial makeup of local schools. The New Kent County “freedom of choice” or “free transfer” plan was one of these.
By 1968, however, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the education acts of 1965, which reinforced the Brown decision, and the Court was losing patience with school districts that were flouting its authority as well as the laws of the United States. In Green and two cases the following year, the Supreme Court crushed all remaining efforts to resist desegregation with three sweeping decisions that left no loopholes for any school in the nation to violate the law. In Green, the Court charged school boards “with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary to convert a unitary system in which racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.” The Court said it would hold in contempt any school in which 85% or more of the students were black. New Kent County and all other school boards were ordered to “convert promptly to a system without a ‘white’ school and a ‘Negro’ school, but just schools.”
The two cases that followed in 1969 were equally forceful and far-reaching. In Alexander v. Holmes, the Court angrily defined the word “promptly” in its Green decision as meaning “at once,” and it ordered every school district in the South “to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate new and hereafter only unitary schools.” In United States v. Montgomery County Board of Education later that year, the Supreme Court established racial ratios for teachers, while reaffirming its 85% rule for students from the Green decision.