Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Eisenhower Years: Desegregation
In 1955, the court released a remedy-phase decision to Brown v. Board of Education, known as Brown II, which required states and local school districts to strike all segregationist laws from their books and to pursue racial desegregation . . . "with all deliberate speed." A few months after this ruling, President Eisenhower hosted a major White House Conference on Education. The participants in the conference agreed that the pursuit of racial desegregation was likely to cause significant turmoil and should therefore proceed slowly in local communities. As one conference brief put it, "the great social, psychological, and organizational changes implicit in the recent decisions of the Supreme Court designed to abolish segregation in the public schools cannot be achieved with equal speed in every community. . . . This is a problem which must be worked out by each community in its own way." By the time the White House Conference on Education had ended, Eisenhower had tacitly endorsed the "gradualism" (or "accommodationism") of the Supreme Court in its Brown II decision.
This capitulation to gradualism did not sit well with members of Congress from the North who wanted to push harder for southern desegregation. Noting that Eisenhower had asked Congress for nearly $1.6 billion in federal aid for school construction in 1955, northern members of Congress pressed to use this money to upgrade the quality of southern schools-and, at the same time, to require desegregation. Each of Eisenhower's federal aid-to-education proposals was amended by representative Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY), who attached a "desegregation rider" to every school-construction bill. Each year from 1955 to 1958, Eisenhower submitted bills for school construction, and, each time, congressman Powell attached his rider-and, each time, in a Congress controlled by southern Democrats who were vehemently opposed to desegregation, the president's bills failed. Powell knew his amendment would kill school-aid bills, but he refused to allow federal grants to flow to unconstitutionally segregated schools.