Written by Michael Hancock
There was a time when “freedom of choice” was no choice at all. After the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) schools were slow to desegregate. New Kent County had two schools that taught students from elementary through high school and prior to 1965, New Kent School’s student body was all white, while George W. Watkins School taught all African American students. The school district implemented a “freedom of choice” plan, where all students could choose which school they wanted to attend.
While the school district did not prevent anyone from attending the school they wanted to, only a few African American students transferred to New Kent County. In turn, no white students transferred to George W. Watkins. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) several students and parents brought action against the school district, arguing that the plan did not adequately integrate the school system.
Calvin C. Green and his wife Mary moved to New Kent County in 1956 and began to pressure the local school board to comply with the Brown decision without success. Then in 1964, at an NAACP meeting in Richmond, Green learned that the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened to cut off federal funding to districts that failed to develop a plan to integrate their schools. Title VI of the Act prohibited racial discrimination in any program receiving federal funds. This provided a strong argument, and the association sought to use it in Virginia to bring about the integration of public schools.
At issue in the district court case, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, was whether the school board’s adoption of a “freedom of choice” plan for the purpose of desegregating a school system was in compliance with its responsibility to achieve a racially nondiscriminatory school system, in accordance with Brown v. Board of Education I (1954). The U.S. District Court ruled against them in 1966, as did the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Both courts ruled that the hastily developed “freedom of choice” plan, issued in August 1965 by the New Kent School Board, satisfied the requirement that it begin integrating the county’s schools.
After their loss in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the NAACP chose to take the Green case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In October 1967, NAACP attorneys argued that the county school board’s “freedom-of-choice” plan illegally placed the burden of integrating the county’s schools on blacks themselves. They also argued that the county sought to maintain a biracial school system by busing some black students up to 20 miles to the all-black George W. Watkins School, though the predominantly white New Kent School was much closer.
In Green, the Supreme Court evaluated the effectiveness of the New Kent County Board’s freedom-of-choice plan in achieving a racially nondiscriminatory school system as required under Brown. The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that when the board relied on a freedom-of-choice plan to promote the conversion of a segregated school system to a nonracial system, it was not objectionable. However, if there were more viable and effective ways to convert to a nonracial system, the Court ruled that a freedom-of-choice plan was unacceptable. In short, the Court held that the separate “White” and “Negro” school system in New Kent County matched the pattern of segregation that Brown I and II found unconstitutional. The Supreme Court pointed out that New Kent County’s dual system, having two separate, segregated schools, was a reflection of the student bodies at the two schools, and of every aspect of their operations, including transportation, faculty, facilities, and extracurricular activities.
The U.S. Supreme Court lost patience with the slow pace of school integration and pointed out that the plan failed to provide meaningful change. The burden was then on the school board to construct a program that was practical and attainable. The Court ordered the school board in New Kent County to formulate a new plan and to consider other efforts, such as zoning, in order to move toward a framework that deconstructed “White” schools and “Negro” schools. The school board made improvements. In a Report and Motion court document dated July 12, 1968, the County School Board of New Kent County reported that it adopted a further plan for the desegregation of its public schools that included the assignment of all children attending grades 1 through 6 to the New Kent County Elementary School (formerly George W. Watkins).
Even though the case was based in New Kent County, it affected school systems throughout the nation. It was in Green v. County School Board that the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it was the duty of school boards to affirmatively eliminate all traces of state-imposed segregation, thereby extending Brown’s prohibition of segregation into a requirement of integration.
Green v New Kent County continues to provide guidance to school boards when they consider assorted factors in addressing issues related to desegregation. It helps those committees ensure equality when they evaluate staff, transportation, administration, and school buildings’ physical plant. The decision’s significance was noted in an exchange between Justice Earl Warren who had written the majority opinion in Brown, and William Brennan who authored the Green decision. Warren wrote a note to Brennan declaring, “When this opinion is handed down, the traffic light will have changed from Brown to Green.”
Our holdings include court documents, memorandums, and rosters that shed even more light on this extraordinary case of desegregation. To learn more, please visit the National Archives online catalog to see more documents from this important landmark case.