A Short Narrative
In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States in Brown v. Board of Education declared legally mandated school segregation to be unconstitutional, but it would be years before desegregated schools would become a reality in most of the school districts where the Court’s decision applied. In many southern communities, opponents of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision fiercely resisted any effort to force local school boards into compliance with the Brown decision. Much of the ensuing struggle over school desegregation took place in the district and appellate courts of the federal judiciary.
New Orleans was one such community where supporters of school integration called on the federal courts to enforce the Brown decision while opponents of racial mixing took extraordinary measures to resist any steps toward desegregation, capturing worldwide attention in the process. Although a federal judge ordered the desegregation of the New Orleans schools in 1956, the local school board and state officials successfully resisted implementation of that order until November 1960, when four black first graders entered two previously all-white schools. Even then, the Louisiana governor and the state legislature continued to resist federal authority.
Public schools remained desegregated in New Orleans largely because of the determination of a small group of black parents who refused to back down and the tenacity of a few federal judges who insisted that Louisiana’s political leadership comply with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution.
Early efforts to challenge school segregation in New Orleans
On September 4, 1952, black attorney A.P. Tureaud, with the assistance of Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter from the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of black parents in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana seeking the racial desegregation of the New Orleans public schools. Although a prior lawsuit had sought equal facilities and resources for black and white schools in New Orleans, this lawsuit challenged segregation itself, claiming that Louisiana’s state statutes and constitutional provisions mandating school segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. During the previous few years, black parents in New Orleans had grown increasingly unhappy with the poor support given schools for black students, who constituted nearly 60% of the city’s student population. With the encouragement of the local NAACP and attorney Tureaud, a group of parents filed a lawsuit challenging school segregation as unconstitutional. Oliver Bush, an insurance salesman with the all-black Louisiana Industrial Life Insurance Company, father of eight school-aged children and president of the Macarty PTA, volunteered to have his children be the lead plaintiffs in the suit, which became known as Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board.
At the encouragement of Thurgood Marshall, Tureaud agreed to suspend his newly filed lawsuit until the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling on a pending group of cases that called for a decision on the constitutionality of school segregation. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring legally protected public school segregation unconstitutional.
Early efforts in Louisiana to prevent compliance with the Brown v. Board of Education decision
Across the South, in the states of the old Confederacy and in the border states where much of public life remained legally segregated, many white political leaders attacked the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. Within a few days of the decision, the Louisiana legislature passed a resolution condemning the Supreme Court’s “usurpation of power” and later enacted various statutes that imposed administrative barriers to students seeking to transfer to a new school. In November 1954, the voters of Louisiana approved an amendment to the state constitution that required school segregation in an effort “to promote and protect public health, morals, better education and the peace and good order in the State, and not because of race.”
Renewed efforts to challenge school segregation in New Orleans
In May 1955, the Supreme Court issued another decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, this time directing the school boards involved in the case to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” In response, NAACP attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter urged black parents across the South to demand that local school boards comply with precedent established by the Brown decision. A.P. Tureaud petitioned the Orleans Parish School Board, asking it to comply with the Brown decision by desegregating the city’s schools. On August 20, 1955, after the Board took no action on his petition, Tureaud reopened the 1952 lawsuit demanding the desegregation of the New Orleans schools and also asked for an order declaring unconstitutional the recent acts of the Louisiana legislature that reinforced school segregation. Robert Carter, of the national office of the NAACP, assisted Tureaud in developing and arguing the case.
In February 1956, a three-judge district court, made up of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Wayne Borah and U.S. District Court Judges Herbert Christenberry and J. Skelly Wright, held that the state statutes designed to thwart school desegregation and the Louisiana state constitutional provisions that required school segregation violated the U.S. Constitution. (Federal law at the time provided for the appointment of such three-judge courts when litigants sought to prevent enforcement of state laws that they believed to be unconstitutional.) Later that day, Judge Wright held that the Orleans Parish Schools were unconstitutionally segregated and ordered the Orleans Parish School Board to end school segregation. Judge Wright’s order, the first desegregation order issued by a judge in the Deep South states stretching from South Carolina to Louisiana, imposed no specific date by which the school board had to desegregate the New Orleans schools.
More legal efforts to forestall school desegregation
During the summer of 1956, the Louisiana state legislature responded to Wright’s desegregation order with another set of laws designed to forestall that action. None of the legislature’s efforts to preserve segregation withstood challenges in the federal courts, but the legislature was able to delay enforcement of the desegregation order for another four years. The barrage of obstructive laws also encouraged those who defended segregation. One typical law approved in 1955 authorized the state legislature to determine the racial composition of schools in large cities, such as New Orleans. In November 1956, the voters of Louisiana approved a state constitutional amendment that barred all lawsuits against school boards.
When the Orleans Parish School Board argued that the legislature’s act deprived the board of the authority to carry out the desegregation order, Judge Wright declared the state law unconstitutional and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld his decision. The Louisiana legislature, however, was undeterred. In 1958, the legislature enacted yet a third round of anti-desegregation laws, which empowered the governor to close any “racially mixed public school or schools under court order to racially mix its student body.” A new statute provided that “no child shall be compelled to attend any school in which the races are commingled,” and offered tuition grants for private schools if a school system operated “no racially separate public school.”
Judge Wright orders school desegregation to begin in September 1960
In July 1959, A.P. Tureaud, assisted by attorney Constance Baker Motley from the national office of the NAACP, went back into court to request that Judge Wright establish a specific timetable for the desegregation of the New Orleans schools. On July 15, 1959, more than three years after his initial decision finding the New Orleans schools unconstitutionally segregated, Judge Wright ordered the Orleans Parish School Board to present a desegregation plan to him by March 1, 1960 (the lawyers representing the black schoolchildren had asked for an August 15, 1959, deadline). Wright subsequently extended his deadline to May 16, 1960.
On May 16, 1960, the Orleans Parish School Board advised Judge Wright that it had not prepared the required desegregation plan because of the various restraints imposed on the school board by the state legislature. Judge Wright responded with an order requiring the school board to implement a desegregation plan that he had devised. Wright’s plan allowed all first grade students in New Orleans, beginning in September 1960, to choose to attend either the white or black school closest to their home. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, the justice assigned to the Fifth Circuit to provide initial review of appeals while the full Court was not in session, denied the school board’s request for a “stay” of Wright’s order. (The full Supreme Court concurred when it convened in the fall.)
Orleans Parish School Superintendent James Redmond estimated that the entering first-grade class in the fall of 1960 would include 7,000 black students and 4,000 white students. The Louisiana legislature and the Citizens Council began to seriously discuss closing the schools rather than allow Wright’s order to go into effect. An organization called Save Our Schools (SOS) emerged as one of the few public voices of white moderation and promoted efforts to keep the schools open. Many of the members of SOS supported integration, but they never publicly advocated integrated schools. The group’s public statements focused instead on the damage to the city’s reputation and economy if the schools were to close. Another group of white parents, the Committee for Public Education, included many supporters of segregation, but they too were determined to prevent school closing, and they had the support of a majority of the Orleans Parish School Board.
The Louisiana legislature takes further action to prevent school desegregation
In what was by then a familiar pattern, during the summer of 1960 the Louisiana legislature took additional action to thwart Judge Wright’s desegregation order and assert state authority over public schools. The legislature granted the governor authority to take over the operation of any school district that was subject to court-ordered desegregation. Another statute provided that the legislature had the sole right to decide which schools were for white children, which schools were for black children, and which were to be integrated. The state legislature also established a “sovereignty commission” to examine legal measures, including invoking “interposition,” that might protect the sovereignty of Louisiana. The doctrine of interposition, accepted by many white southerners, held that a state had the authority to block or “nullify” an action of the federal government if the state concluded that the federal government (including a federal judge) had acted in an unconstitutional manner.
The attorney general of Louisiana, Jack Gremillion, filed suit in a state court seeking to restrain the Orleans Parish School Board from desegregating its schools as required by the federal court order. On July 29, 1960, state court Judge Oliver P. Carriere agreed that the Louisiana state legislature had the sole right to determine the racial makeup of the state’s public schools and directed the school board to take no further action to comply with Wright’s desegregation order. Governor Jimmie Davis then entered the fray on August 17, 1960, announcing his intention to take control of the Orleans Parish schools pursuant to his authority under the newly enacted state law.
Parents sue, and a three-judge court intervenes
In response to a suit filed by A.P. Tureaud and another filed by a group of white parents who wanted to keep the schools open, Richard Rives, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, assembled a three-judge district court composed of himself and U.S. District Court Judges Herbert Christenberry and J. Skelly Wright to consider the constitutionality of the state’s various actions. On August 27, 1960, the three-judge court issued a temporary injunction restraining the governor and other state and local officials from acting under the authority of the state court injunction and the various statutes passed by the Louisiana legislature that interfered with the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools. The three-judge court also declared unconstitutional seven of the recently enacted state segregation statutes, including the one that permitted Davis to close schools facing integration.
At the request of the Orleans Parish School Board, Judge Wright accepted an alternative desegregation plan devised by the school board and delayed implementation of the desegregation order from September 8 until November 14, 1960. The board’s plan relied on the state pupil placement law, which required black students wishing to attend an all-white school to apply for transfer. The law also gave the school board authority to determine eligibility for transfer based on psychological testing, academic aptitude, and character assessment. Wright later revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice had urged him to delay desegregation until after the 1960 presidential election. This delay constituted the first time that Judge Wright ruled against the plaintiffs in the case. Tureaud strenuously objected to the two-month delay, but failed to convince either the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court to reverse the delay.
On October 27, New Orleans School Superintendent James F. Redmond announced that after extensive psychological and ability testing, 5 of 137 black applicants had been accepted and would attend first grade at two white schools. He also announced that first grade classrooms would be segregated by sex.
The state legislature meets again to stop desegregation
The delay in the onset of school desegregation allowed segregationist pressure to build throughout the state. The day after Redmond announced that five black children would enter white schools in November 1960, Governor Davis, yielding to pressure from segregationist leaders from throughout the state, reversed course and called the state legislature into a special session beginning on November 4.
Within five days, the legislature again passed a bewildering assortment of measures to prevent or at least delay desegregation in New Orleans. These actions included an interposition resolution, declaring the decisions of the courts in the field of desegregation to be a “usurpation” of power, and legislation imposing a mandatory jail term and fine on any federal judge or other federal officer who attempted to impose school desegregation. The state legislature also transferred all powers from the Orleans Parish School Board to the legislature. Immediately after the governor signed the laws, the legislative leaders appointed a committee, which assumed control of the Orleans Parish schools with the intention of blocking the desegregation planned for November 14.
Last minute wrangling between Judge Wright and state officials
Three hours after the legislative committee met on November 10, 1960, to assume control of the New Orleans schools, Judge Wright restored the elected school board to power and blocked enforcement of the new state statutes. At the request of the local U.S. attorney, Judge Wright also issued an order restraining state and local officials from arresting or initiating any criminal proceedings against federal officers for the performance of their duties.
But the state struck back. On Saturday, November 12, State Education Superintendent Shelby Jackson declared a statewide school holiday on Monday, November 14, as a means of preventing school desegregation in New Orleans on that day. The next day Judge Wright directed Superintendent Jackson to appear in Wright’s court and explain why Jackson should not be found in contempt of court, since the August 27 injunction of the three-judge court specifically prohibited Jackson from taking any action to forestall school desegregation in New Orleans. Also on November 12, President Eisenhower’s attorney general, William Rogers, announced that the full powers of the Department of Justice would be used if necessary to support Judge Wright’s desegregation order.
Caught between the desegregation order of the federal district court and the order from the state superintendent of education that schools close for a holiday, the Orleans Parish School Board decided to proceed with its planned desegregation on November 14. But the Louisiana state legislature, convening on Sunday, November 13, placed the entire state legislature in charge of the Orleans Parish schools, reaffirmed that November 14 would be a school holiday, voted to fire the Orleans Parish school superintendent and school board attorney, and dispatched various sergeants-at-arms to New Orleans to ensure that the schools would not open the next morning in New Orleans. The legislature completed its work and recessed at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday.
Forty-five minutes later, Judge Wright issued a new order against the entire 140-member state legislature, the governor and lieutenant governor, and various other state and local officials, directing them to take no action “interfering with the operation of the public schools for the Parish of Orleans by the Orleans Parish School Board.” Federal marshals prepared to escort the black children into the white schools the next morning.
School desegregation begins in New Orleans
On the morning of November 14, 1960, four black girls—Ruby Bridges, Tessie Prevost, Gail Etienne, and Leona Tate—entered first grade at McDonogh No. 19 and William Frantz elementary schools, formerly all-white schools located in lower-income, predominantly white neighborhoods. (A fifth black student, also slated to attend a white school, was removed at the last minute when it was discovered that her parents had not been married when she was born. Fearing controversy, the school board and Judge Wright agreed that she should not be one of the students attending a white school.) More than 100 law enforcement officers surrounded the two schools to prevent violence as hundreds of spectators—mostly women and children—gathered to jeer the black children and to urge white parents and children to boycott the schools.
Also on November 14, the state legislature went back into session to respond to what Lieutenant Governor C.C. Aycock called “the genesis of an era of judicial tyranny.” The legislature voted, again, to remove the elected Orleans Parish School Board from office, and various state officials successfully petitioned a state judge for an order to restrain the elected school board from taking any further action. Before the night was over, however, Judge Wright issued an order nullifying the state court order and restraining state officials from taking any action to remove the elected school board.
On November 15, the state legislature called on other states to invoke the doctrine of interposition in a coordinated effort. That evening 5,000 people turned out for a Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans rally protesting desegregation. State Representative W.K. Brown of Grant Parish called for the arrest of Judge Wright for “causing disorder, chaos, strife and turmoil in this state.” Leander Perez, district attorney for nearby Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes and one of the leading segregationists in the state, told the crowd: “Don’t wait for your daughter to be raped by these Congolese. Don’t wait until the burr-heads are forced into your schools. Do something about it now.”
Inspired by the call of the Citizens Council, about 1,000 persons, mostly high school students, swarmed through various downtown buildings the following day. When the mob approached the school administration building, they were turned back by police wielding fire hoses. The mob then rampaged through the city’s business district, throwing bricks and bottles at buses and cars occupied by blacks. Several people were injured. That evening, blacks retaliated, firing shots and throwing rocks at whites. Police arrested more than 250 individuals.
The Louisiana legislature approved a resolution commending “the parents who withdrew their children from the schools sought to be integrated” and calling on these parents and their children to continue a boycott. Another resolution called for the disqualification of Judge Wright from further participation in the New Orleans school desegregation litigation on grounds that he “has a personal bias against the State of Louisiana, its Executive Department, its Legislature and its Judiciary . . . which has made it impossible for him to fairly and impartially discharge the duties of his office.” United States Senator Russell Long addressed the Louisiana state legislature and announced that he “would personally vote to impeach the entire [U.S.] Supreme Court.”
The three-judge district court again takes action
Despite the public violence and calls for suspension of the desegregation order, a three-judge federal district court, again composed of Rives, Christenberry, and Wright, denied the school board’s motion to vacate Wright’s desegregation order and issued an order restraining more than 700 state and local government officials from interfering with school desegregation in New Orleans. The court also decisively rejected the state of Louisiana’s argument that it had interposed the state’s sovereignty against the “usurpation of power” by the federal courts, finding the doctrine of interposition to be without merit.
New legislative efforts to stop school desegregation
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to vacate the decision of the three-judge panel, the Louisiana legislature continued its efforts to block desegregation. The legislature denied funds to the Orleans Parish School Board and asserted its own authority to appoint a school board committed to maintaining segregation.
In the meantime, the group Save Our Schools (SOS) began to transport a few white children to the desegregated schools. In response, the local Citizens Council published the names of SOS volunteers and the few other whites who were “breaking” the school boycott. The families of the white students who continued to attend the desegregated schools faced reprisals and harassment: Some lost jobs, others lost their leases, and others received death threats. Fewer than ten white children continued to attend the two desegregated schools. Local police established 24-hour guards at the homes of those white families, and on December 9, 1960, U.S. marshals began escorting white children to the desegregated schools. The U.S. marshals had already been escorting the four black children to school since November 14.
The organized business community in New Orleans had resisted earlier requests to support desegregation as a means of keeping the public schools open, but a group of over 100 white business and professional leaders, worried that the desegregation fight would damage the tourist trade and business in the city, warned in a December 1960 newspaper advertisement that the state’s resistance to school segregation was “untenable” and urged an immediate end to “threats, defamation and resistance of those who administer our laws.” Immediately thereafter, the signers of the advertisement began to receive harassing phone calls and were criticized at a Citizens Council rally. At this rally, Emmett L. Irwin, chair of the local Citizens Council, brought several young white children, some in blackface, onto the stage of the auditorium. On Irwin’s signal, the children began kissing each other. Irwin told the crowd: “That’s just a little demonstration of what integration means.”
Another three-judge court ruling
In response to petitions filed by the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice, in December 1960, a three-judge federal district court composed of Rives, Christenberry, and Wright restored the authority of the Orleans Parish School Board and its attorney, who had been dismissed by the state attorney general.
The court’s decisions provoked the state legislature’s usual resolutions condemning federal interference with state sovereignty, but Governor Davis vetoed the act granting the legislature authority to appoint a new school board for Orleans Parish, noting that the three-judge federal court had restrained enforcement of a similar law granting the governor the power to appoint a new board.
Support for desegregation from Washington
In early 1961, a new round of state legislative efforts to maintain segregation faltered in the face of federal authority. At the direction of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the Department of Justice filed contempt of court proceedings seeking to force release of funds to the financially strapped Orleans Parish school district. Both Judge Wright and the Orleans Parish School Board had sought the department’s intervention.
On March 20, 1961, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the recent orders of the three-judge federal court declaring unconstitutional the various efforts by the state of Louisiana to resist desegregation. Although segregationists in Louisiana would continue to resist school desegregation in New Orleans, Wright’s determination to enforce desegregation, coupled with the support of the Department of Justice and the affirmation of the Supreme Court, ensured that the New Orleans schools would remain open and at least partially desegregated.
School desegregation in New Orleans expands in fall 1961
In the fall of 1961, eight black first graders in New Orleans entered previously all-white schools, while the four black students who had launched the desegregation era the prior year moved on to the second grade. In May 1961, the NAACP had petitioned Judge Wright for much more extensive desegregation, but Wright declined to issue such an order. The opening of school in the fall of 1961 was far more peaceful than the prior year. Although many white parents continued to boycott the desegregated schools, there were no disruptions.
In the meantime, in October 1961, the Supreme Court once again affirmed a federal district court decision striking down state legislation that made it a crime to encourage children to attend desegregated schools. In many ways, a more significant decision came on November 29, 1961, when the Louisiana Supreme Court decided that the state statute granting the governor authority to replace the elected Orleans Parish School Board was as a practical matter unenforceable. This marked the first time that a Louisiana state court had recognized the authority of the federal courts’ desegregation rulings. The Louisiana Supreme Court commented: “[T]he Louisiana statute . . . has been declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. . . . While we entertain serious doubt as to the soundness of that ruling, . . . the fact remains that the specific statute involved here has been stricken with nullity and rendered permanently ineffective by the highest court of the land.” Louisiana Attorney General Jack Gremillion announced in early 1962 that federal courts would continue to order desegregation and that local communities could avoid desegregation litigation if they tried to “solve some of their racial problems themselves.” The tide had turned in Louisiana.
Judge Wright moves on
On December 15, 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed J. Skelly Wright to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Earlier efforts to elevate Wright to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had been thwarted by southern senators upset with his desegregation rulings. Wright was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and joined the District of Columbia Circuit in April 1962. On April 3, 1962, in his final order in the New Orleans desegregation case, Wright, noting the persistence of significant inequalities between black and white schools, provided that in the fall of 1962, grades one through six of the New Orleans schools would be desegregated—a significant increase over the prior two years. President Kennedy’s appointee as Wright’s successor, U.S. District Judge Frank Ellis, promptly vacated Wright’s final order and continued the desegregation of the New Orleans schools on a one-grade-each-year basis. The pace of school desegregation in New Orleans would remain steady, but slow.