Striking Down “Freedom of Choice” Plans for School Desegregation: Green v. New Kent County

The 1968 Supreme Court decision in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County – that a “freedom of choice” plan was not sufficient to bring about school desegregation – spurred on full desegregation in Virginia schools. Today’s post about the case comes from archives technician Michael J. Hancock at the National Archives at College Park, MD. It was originally published on our sister blog, Rediscovering Black History.

Recently digitized primary sources from Green v. New Kent County are now available on DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.

Annotated Map of Bus Routes for George W. Watkins School
This map provided evidence that African American students were being bused across the county, on routes overlapping those of buses carrying white students, to segregated schools. View on DocsTeach.

There was a time when “freedom of choice” was no choice at all. After the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), schools were slow to desegregate.

New Kent County, VA, had two schools that taught students from elementary through high school. Before 1965, New Kent School’s student body was all white, while George W. Watkins School taught all African American students. The school district implemented a “freedom of choice” plan, where all students could choose which school they wanted to attend.

While the school district did not prevent anyone from attending the school they wanted to, only a few African American students transferred to New Kent County. In turn, no white students transferred to George W. Watkins. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), several students and parents brought action against the school district, arguing that the plan did not adequately integrate the school system.

Calvin C. Green and his wife, Mary, moved to New Kent County in 1956 and began to pressure the local school board to comply with the Brown decision, without success. Then in 1964, at an NAACP meeting in Richmond, Green learned that the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened to cut off federal funding to districts that failed to develop a plan to integrate their schools. Title VI of the act prohibited racial discrimination in any program receiving federal funds. This provided a strong argument for the integration of public schools, and the NAACP sought to use it in Virginia.

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A page from the complaint in Green v. New Kent County. View on DocsTeach.

At issue in the district court case, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, was whether the school board’s adoption of a freedom-of-choice plan for the purpose of desegregating a school system satisfied its responsibility to achieve a racially nondiscriminatory school system in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

The U.S. District Court ruled against the NAACP in 1966, as did the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Both courts ruled that the hastily developed freedom-of-choice plan, issued in August 1965 by the New Kent School Board, satisfied the requirement that it begin integrating the county’s schools.

After their loss in the Fourth 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 African Americans 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 Green, the Supreme Court evaluated the effectiveness of the New Kent County Board’s freedom of choice plan in achieving a racially nondiscriminatory school system as required under Brown. The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that when the board relied on a freedom-of-choice plan to promote the conversion of a segregated school system to a nonracial system, it was not objectionable. However, if there were more viable and effective ways to convert to a nonracial system, the Court ruled that a freedom-of-choice plan was unacceptable.

In short, the Court held that the separate “White” and “Negro” school system in New Kent County matched the pattern of segregation that Brown I (1954) and Brown II (1955) found unconstitutional. [Following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown I that declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, the Brown II decision placed responsibility for how to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed” on local school authorities.] The Supreme Court pointed out that New Kent County’s dual system, having two separate, segregated schools, was a reflection of the student bodies at the two schools, and of every aspect of their operations, including transportation, faculty, facilities, and extracurricular activities.

SCOTUSopinion_11and12
Pages from the Supreme Court Opinion. View on DocsTeach.

The U.S. Supreme Court lost patience with the slow pace of school integration and pointed out that the plan failed to provide meaningful change. The burden was then on the school board to construct a program that was practical and attainable. The Court ordered the school board in New Kent County to formulate a new plan and to consider other efforts, such as zoning, in order to move toward a framework that deconstructed “White” schools and “Negro” schools.

Report and Motion of July 1968
Report and motion of 7/12/1968. View on DocsTeach.

The school board made improvements, and in a report and motion court document dated July 12, 1968, the County School Board of New Kent County reported that it adopted a further plan for the desegregation of its public schools that included the assignment of all children attending grades 1 through 6 to the New Kent County Elementary School (formerly George W. Watkins) [and grades 7 through 12 to the New Kent High School (formerly New Kent School)].

Even though the case was based in New Kent County, it affected school systems throughout the nation. It was in Green v. New Kent County that the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it was the duty of school boards to affirmatively eliminate all traces of state-imposed segregation, thereby extending Brown’s prohibition of segregation into a requirement of integration.

Green v. New Kent County continues to provide guidance to school boards when they consider assorted factors in addressing issues related to desegregation. It helps those committees ensure equality when they evaluate staff, transportation, administration, and school buildings’ physical plant.

The decision’s significance was noted in an exchange between Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had written the majority opinion in Brown, and William Brennan, who authored the Green decision. Warren wrote a note to Brennan declaring, “When this opinion is handed down, the traffic light will have changed from Brown to Green.”

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