Du Bois and Desegregation

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

"We rejoice and tell the world," wrote W.E.B. Du Bois of the Brown decision within days after it was handed down. Nevertheless, he added, many and long steps along Freed om Road lie ahead."1 

Nine months later, Du Bois turned to a detailed analysis of the ruling. Under the best of circumstances, he predicted, "It will be a generation before the segregated Negro public school entirely disappears. "2 Implied as an even longer wait. Brown confronted black parents with "a cruel dilemma." Their children must be educated, yet, Du Bois declared 

With successfully mixed schools, they know that their children must suffer for years from Southern white teachers, from white hoodlums who sit beside them and under school authorities from janitors to superintendents, who hate and despise them. They know, dear God, how they know! 

But in justice to future generations of black children, he concluded, parents must accept the ambiguous legacy of Brown. 

School desegregation would bring basic changes in black schools and communities. The idea of race solidarity, he observed, would have to recede and black culture yield to a concept of world humanity, superseding both race and nation. Superior black teachers would have to leave the schools because, Du Bois stressed, "they will not and cannot teach what many white folks will long want taught." Little teaching of black history would remain in the schools, he predicted, so the home and the church would need to pick up the slack.

As the months slipped by, Du Bois chronicled the lack of progress in desegregation. In January, 1956, he wrote that "segregation in schools still remains in most of the South, and complete nullification of the Supreme Court decision is bitterly advocated."3 In November, 1957, he reported that "seven states where 6,000,000 Negroes live have taken no steps toward integration of the schools. "4 Beyond these references, apparently, Du Bois did not discuss the subject in print. 

Segregation and desegregation of schools, however, were subjects Du Bois had frequently pondered during the years preceding Brown. In 1907, he explained in a debate in Atlanta that "our children are trained separately and into enmity, hatred and contempt for each other." Forced attendance in inferior separate facilities of any kind was devastating to the people involved. At the same time, he cautioned against equating the rule of Jim Crow with the separation of the races. The result of Jim Crow, he wrote, "is not separation but an arrangement whereby whites go anywhere they please and Negroes anywhere they can."5 An important distinction, indeed. 

Twenty-eight years later, in 1935, Du Bois asked whether blacks needed separate schools, and answered yes, no, and maybe. Ideally, a non-segregated school "is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youth," he said. "It gives wider contacts, it inspires greater self-confidence, and suppresses the inferiority complex."6 If in such a school black students were in fact denied equal treatment, then it was preferable that they attend a black school. This, however, was true only if, in the black school, "children are treated like human beings, [and] trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black." Otherwise, "a segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate equipment, poor salaries, and wretched housing is equally bad." 

In 1945, a correspondent in Dayton reported to Du Bois that he was being quoted as favoring all-black schools. He wrote her in reply:7 

There are cases where the establishment of a separate school would be nothing less than a crime permitted by carelessness. There are other cases when the establishment of a separate school is not only advisable, but a bounden duty if colored children are going to get education .... What I want is education for Negro children. I believe that in the long run this can be best accomplished by unsegregated schools but lack of segregation in itself is no guarantee of education and fine education has often been furnished by segregated schools. 

Essentially, his views remained unchanged over the period 1935-1945. 

Du Bois recognized that separate black schools were almost always materially deprived. Little more than a year before Brown, he noted:8 

Most Negro school children go to separate schools, and the Negro schools are poorer than the white schools, the difference in appropriations sometimes being fantastic and nearly always considerable. This means a vast difference of opportunity for preparation for better work and in general intelligence. It is one of the greatest hindrances of the Negro. 

As he spoke in New York City, several hundred miles away, in Washington, D.C., strategists in the Brown litigation had decided not to ask the Supreme Court to eliminate expenditure differences between black and white schools. They feared that, given a choice, the Court would equalize material facilities rather than abolish segregation. 

Both before and after Brown, Du Bois held paramount the goal of educating black children. Before Brown, where this could be had without segregation, it was to be preferred. But if segregated schools were unavoidable, then they must be equally financed. After Brown, Du Bois counseled black parents to hold out for the historic promise of equality. When the Court ruled, Du Bois was in his 86th year and being shamefully hounded by the federal government for his radical views on foreign policy. While he wrote little during these years about schools, he weighed solemnly the positive and negative aspects of the new situation. 


Does the Du Bois heritage turn us in any specific directions when we view what remains undone, one quarter of a century after Brown? 

Some of the questions about just schooling have certainly changed. For one thing, simple access to some kind of education is no longer a problem as it was during much of Du Bois' life. Instead, in one city after another, public schooling as a whole is in critical disrepair. Adequate public education for black children can no longer be pursued apart from the goal of improved education for alI. 

Du Bois would probably be puzzled at the growing call for "quality education." The slogan usually covers little more than mastery of reading, writing and arithmetic. Parents who witness their children being deprived even of these fundamentals understandably welcome renewed attention to basic academic abilities. Such a goal, however, represents a completely inadequate conception of good education. Du Bois saw education as the creation of free men and women who had a strong sense of justice and a powerful commitment to strike down oppression. In the ideal school, students would learn how they shared common interests with people in other countries. They would understand the potentials of scientific and economic structures that can destroy or enrich mankind. According to Du Bois, educators who slight goals like these are helping foist off a threadbare rag as a majestic gown. 

Neither segregation nor desegregation is a substitute for excellent education, although, as Du Bois pointed out long ago, it can thrive more easily in truly integrated schools. Enforcement of desegregation as a legal imperative must not flag. But new structures are needed to bring about excellent education. 

One step that parents can pursue is to insist upon enforcement of their state's constitutional requirement of a good education for all children. At present, if a public school system fails sweepingly to educate children, nothing much seems to happen. Perhaps, however, this would change if school systems were treated as pubIic utilities. If a gas pipe leaks, we phone the gas company, and - sooner or later - the repair person comes out to check. This is part of the obligation of the company in exchange for being given the right to a monopoly price. 

Parents, however, cannot calI a company to "repair" defective school systems. But why not? States could, for example, pass laws declaring that public school systems may draw state aid only so long as they educate children. If they fail to do so - and a standard would have to be set up - control of the system would pass to the state. When the system operated at an acceptable level, control could be returned to local authorities. The power of a state to do this exists right now, since school districts are the creation of the state. In the Rodriguez school-financing case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that elimination of educational inequalities was a state, not a federal, matter. The principle is a very broad one. Education has historically been a state responsibility; but, instead of taking a positive approach to learning, states are now creating examination standards which institutionalize inadequate schooling, penalizing the victims by withholding their diplomas if they fail competency tests. 

Du Bois preached self-organization of blacks as the indispensable precondition of racial advance. At the same time, it was clear to him that, at least on the national scene, little could be accomplished without black-white cooperation. Since his death, the character of the problem has changed. A new political arena for black action has emerged: a coalition of the most oppressed minorities. 

Few historians have studied inter-minority cooperation even though many examples have occurred. During the last months of Du Bois’ life, in the summer of 1963, Mexican-American spokesmen asked to join a black-white coalition leading a civil rights demonstration in Los Angeles. The request was turned down. By fall, Mexican-Americans had created their own organization. Thereafter, they were considered a legitimate part of the civil rights movement. 

In parts of Texas and California, as well as in Chicago, New York City and elsewhere, a coalition of minorities would approach or exceed a simple majority of the people. Yet the movement has not developed. Rather, school and government leaders have sensed its potential and effectively headed off any unifying development. A favorite device is to stress possible conflicts without searching for any possible solution. Bilingual-bicultural education, for example, is said to contradict desegregation. In a number of communities, Latinos and blacks are at arm’s length over the issue. But the conflict is a false one. Bilingualism and desegregation can be very readily accommodated in the same school setting.9  

In higher education, minority student groups have fought repeatedly over their share of inadequate student aid funds. The short-run partisan advantages sought in such conflicts melt away in the face of political benefits to be gained in the larger arena. Open admissions in the City University of New York, for example, would have been unthinkable in the absence of close Puerto Rican-black cooperation.10 The declining vitality of the program over the past several years implies an inability of the black and Puerto Rican communities to mount a continuing movement on behalf of open admissions. 

As America's economy continues to sag, the country's minorities will feel the brunt most heavily. They will be drawn more closely together on a political level to alleviate the consequences of economic failure. By the same token, this newly consolidated power can be placed in support of new initiatives in education. Thus the 25th anniversary of Brown may witness the beginning of a new age in American education. Just as it did a quarter of a century ago, the impetus will come from the organized minorities and the poor, not from the educational establishment. 

Celebrations of historic occasions are themselves part of history. For 25 years now we have celebrated Brown as a landmark of American progress. In Du Bois' phrase, it was one step down Freedom Road and thus deserves to be hailed. But it was only a single step, and a halting one at that. The Supreme Court virtually abandoned it for a decade after 1954, as one evasion succeeded another. Had it not been for the unrelenting pressure of black folk and their organizations, little other than ringing declarations would have remained by 1964. 

Actually, except for the historic moment of May 17, 1954, the high court was a vigilant advocate of desegregation only from 1968 to 1973. Before then it permitted non-enforcement of Brown to become the rule. After 1973, it began to waver, and still seems adrift. There is far more to regret than to celebrate in the past six years. 

Brown itself said nothing about the affirmative obligation of government to eliminate the discriminatory inequalities that are part of a racist social order. Nor did it mention the glaring material differences of schooling between privileged groups and poor and minority children, even within the same city. Nor did it speak to the broad span of devices used in too many desegregated schools that recreate separation in a thousand disguises. Nor did it prevent the real-estate industry from segregating housing and thus complicating immensely the task of school desegregation. 

Let us hope that on the 25th anniversary of Brown we will spend less time on 1954 and more on how American society can fill the gaps left by Brown. By looking forward we do not forget the past, but honor it. We will honor it all the more by building where earlier pioneers were not able.  


1. W.E.B. Du Bois, "We Rejoice and Tell the World ... But We Must Go Further," National Guardian, May 31, 1954. 

2. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Two Hundred Years of Segregated Schools," p. 283 in Philip S. Foner (ed.), W.E.B. Du Bois Speaks. Speeches and Addresses 1920-1963 (NY: Pathfinder Press, 1970). 

3. W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Negro in America Today," National Guardian, January 16, 1956, reprinted in Julius Lester (ed.), The Seventh Son. The Thought and Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, II (NY: Vintage, 1971), p. 627. 

4. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Does 'All Deliberate Speed' Mean 338 Years?" National Guardian, November 4, 1957. 

5. "W.E.B. Du Bois' Confrontation with White Liberalism During the Progressive Era: A Phylon Document," Phylon, 35 (September, 1974), p. 248. The debate occurred on January 31, 1907. 

6. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?" Journal of Negro Education (July, 1935), p. 335. 

7. W.E.B. Du Bois, "A Question of Jim Crow Schools," Chicago Defender, October 6, 1945. 

8. W.E.B. Du Bois, "One Hundred Years of Negro Freedom," in Foner (ed.), W.E.B. Du Bois Speaks, p. 265. The speech was made in January, 1953. 

9. See, for example, the unpublished work by Peter Roos of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund. 

10. See Allen B. Ballard, The Education of Black Folk (NY: Harper & Row, 1973).