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  • With All Deliberate Delay:Kennedy, Johnson, and School Desegregation
  • Dean Kotlowski (bio)

The desegregation of southern schools, mandated by the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), presented a dilemma for national politicians of both parties. "If presidents felt they should speak up, or act to enforce court rulings," a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1969, "they risked offending conservatives, segregationists, and the South. If they wanted to sit tight, they invited the wrath of liberals."1 Even presidents who were capable of acting in other areas of civil rights were content to assume a low profile on school desegregation, assign responsibility for this area of policymaking to subordinates, and enforce it only under external pressure, usually from the federal courts.

School desegregation policy challenges several long-held views—of President John F. Kennedy as a reluctant, but then public, champion of civil rights; of President Lyndon B. Johnson as steadfastly (or newly) liberal on race; of President Richard M. Nixon as captive to white backlash and a politically inspired "southern strategy."2 A closer inspection reveals a flatter line. Seeing school desegregation as an especially difficult route to racial equality, JFK, not unlike President Dwight D. Eisenhower, instead sought expanded voting rights and job opportunities for blacks. LBJ, realizing that desegregation would stir political troubles difficult to resolve via arm-twisting and legislation, relegated the matter to his Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Thus, the unfinished task of school desegregation, and the edicts of an increasingly impatient Supreme Court, fell to Nixon when he became president. Judicial pressure on districts, among other factors, forced Nixon to do what his predecessors had not done: desegregate southern schools on an unprecedented scale.3 Interestingly, the literature on the civil rights [End Page 155] movement has not plumbed the topic of school desegregation during the 1960s.4 Therefore, revisionist scholars who have applauded Nixon's successful desegregation of southern schools, mostly during 1970, have little to compare his policy against.5

Three themes permeated school desegregation policy during the 1960s. First, political and practical considerations shaped the actions of Kennedy and Johnson, the last presidents to lead a broad-based Democratic party encompassing civil rights advocates and southern segregationists. Both men feared that enforcement of Brown would provoke white southerners to desert the party, as they had done in 1948, or encourage grassroots resistance, as had happened in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Accordingly, Kennedy and Johnson, like Eisenhower before them and Nixon after them, juggled competing pressures, to uphold court rulings, to respect America's system of federalism, and be patient with southern whites worried about the fate of their schools, children, and race. Neither man championed a Second Reconstruction in the area of school desegregation.

Second, school desegregation under JFK and LBJ reflected a hedged liberalism. Liberals look to an active state to promote economic, social, and political reform. But the number of problems ripe for action, the variety of possible solutions, and the extent of federal power—in theory vast but in practice limited—forced them to pick their fights.6 For both constitutional and political reasons, the federal role in education remained small before the 1960s. The commerce clause, since the 1930s a principal vehicle for justifying federal intervention in civil rights areas, could not be applied to state-run public schools since such schools did fall under interstate commerce.7 Moreover, southern Democrats opposed federal aid to education, fearing that federal funding would lead to federal control and the rapid, forced desegregation of their schools. At the same time, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed American citizens the right to vote. Accordingly, regarding civil rights, both JFK and LBJ preferred to tackle issues such as voting rights and fair employment that they deemed more politically and legally congenial—and less emotional—than school desegregation. This hierarchy, if one can call it that, among civil rights remedies differed little from the priorities of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

Lastly, the policies of JFK and LBJ yielded little real school desegregation. Kennedy did not endorse legislation, advanced by northerners in Congress, to require districts to develop plans for "first-step" compliance with Brown...


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