On this dayNov 24, 1958

Supreme Court Allows Alabama to Evade Mandate for Racial Integration

On November, 24, 1958, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided Shuttlesworth vs. Birmingham Board of Education, rejecting a challenge to Alabama’s School Placement Law. The law, designed to defy the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and maintain school segregation, allowed Alabama school boards to assign individual students to particular schools at their own discretion with little transparency or oversight.

Alabama’s School Placement Law, which claimed to allow school boards to designate placement of students based on ability, availability of transportation, and academic background, was modeled after the Pupil Placement Act in North Carolina—enacted on March 30, 1955, in response to the Brown decision. Virginia passed the second placement law on September 29, 1956. In 1957, after the North Carolina law was upheld by a higher court, legislatures in other Southern states passed similar pupil placement laws; by 1960, such laws were on the books in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and the city of Atlanta, Georgia.

After the Alabama law's passage, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth sued on behalf of four African American students in Birmingham who had been denied admission to white schools that were closer to their homes. In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court wrote, “The School Placement Law furnishes the legal machinery for an orderly administration of the public schools in a constitutional manner by the admission of qualified pupils upon a basis of individual merit without regard to their race or color. We must presume that it will be so administered.”

Between the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and 1958, a total of 376,000 African American children were enrolled in integrated schools in the South. This growth slowed significantly as states passed obstructive legislation like these pupil placement laws; the figure rose by just 500 students between 1958 and 1959, and by October 1960, only 6% of African American children in the South were attending integrated schools. Crucially, in the five Deep South states, including Alabama, every single one of 1.4 million Black schoolchildren attended segregated schools until the fall of 1960. Learn more about the massive white resistance to integration in this period here.

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