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Civil Rights in Education: Law and History

Civil rights advocates focus on housing and employment discrimination in the struggle for civil rights advancement. Education is another area of focus because it can affect so many other aspects of life. For instance, people with college degrees generally earn more money throughout their lifetimes and have greater social opportunities.

Congress enacted Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title IV prohibits discrimination in public schools and educational programs based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools, and public colleges and universities.

This article discusses the law and history of the civil rights movement in education, focusing on the history of segregation in schools.

Federal Enforcement of the Brown Decision

In 1954, the Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decisionThe Court determined that segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Implementing the Court's decision went slowly. There was massive resistance from the states, especially in the South. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine Black children in Central High School from attending. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school. The National Guard blocked these students from attending the school until President Dwight Eisenhower made the National Guard part of the federal army.

Eisenhower also sent 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to protect the nine children. In September 1958, Faubus closed all the Little Rock schools to prevent more Black children from attending schools with white students. The schools remained closed until August 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them re-opened.

The Struggle Against Segregation in Higher Education

Before the Brown decision, the Supreme Court had made favorable decisions about desegregation in graduate schools. Two years after Brownequal access principles were applied to higher education. Despite these advancements, racial segregation remained problematic at all educational levels.

In January 1961, an African American, James Meredith, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. Officials at the school returned his application. Meredith took his case to court. On Sept. 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to attend the University of Mississippi. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett personally blocked Meredith from registering at the university even after the Supreme Court issued its ruling.

On Sept. 30, 1962, federal marshals and Civil Rights Division lawyers escorted Meredith onto the campus. To protect him, 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 U.S. Border Patrolmen, and 97 federal corrections officers were stationed on or near the campus. Within an hour, roughly 2,000 people attacked the federal forces. The mob fought the officers with guns, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The marshals were ordered not to shoot. They used tear gas to try to stop the rioting.

The Outgrowth of the Fight for Higher Education Desegregation

The violence continued until President John F. Kennedy sent 16,000 federal troops to the University of Mississippi campus. When it was over, two people were dead. Twenty-eight marshals were shot, and 160 people suffered injuries. James Meredith became the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi.

Despite the historical significance and national attention of violent responses to school integration, developing equal educational opportunities is a significant ongoing civil rights issue. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that educational institutions have a compelling interest in a diverse student body.

Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) continue to fight for racial equality.

Additional Laws Offering Protection

The federal government has created many civil rights laws to offer additional anti-discrimination protections in educational settings. One of these laws is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As its name implies, that law offers protection from discrimination based on disability. The U.S. Department of Education monitors compliance with the IDEA.

Another anti-discrimination law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law applies to nearly all schools and school districts, whether public or private. It also applies in the special education setting. The ADA aims to ensure that educational services are available to all students and that students with disabilities have due process of law.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is another federal law. Section 504 of the act offers disability protection in education. The law applies to all school districts receiving federal funding.

Get Help With Your Discrimination Claim

Getting civil rights protection in education was a significant focus during the civil rights movement. Have you been the victim of discrimination in public education?

Discrimination on the basis of race or another protected characteristic by a school system or school board is illegal. You're entitled to equal protection of the law. Take initiative. You might have a valid discrimination claim. Get help from an attorney with experience in discrimination issues. An attorney can also educate you on your state's laws, whether you live in New York or Louisiana.

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