School desegregation, the court-ordered racial integration of public schools, was one of the primary achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, and a major conflict that altered the socioeconomic geography of the Birmingham area in the mid-20th century.
The first major challenge to segregated schools came in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that the "separate but equal" standard for public accommodations which had been established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 failed to ensure, as the 14th amendment required, "the equal protection of the laws," and that therefore segregating public schools by race was unconstitutional. A follow-up ruling, in 1955, ordered that public school districts must accomplish desegregation, "with all deliberate speed."
In compliance with that ruling, Alabama passed a 1955 School Placement Law requiring that students be admitted to a school without regard to race or color, but leaving the execution of pupil placement to the authority of local superintendents. The result was that no public school superintendent actually placed black students in white schools, or vice versa.
On September 9, 1957 Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights president Fred Shuttlesworth accompanied a group of four black children and their parents to Phillips High School in an attempt to enroll them as the school's first black students. The group was met by a mob of Klansmen armed with chains, clubs and brass knuckles. Shuttlesworth's wife, Ruby, was stabbed in the hip and his daughter, Ruby Frederika, suffered a broken ankle in the melee. Badly beaten, Shuttlesworth himself spoke that same night to urge continued non-violence on the part of black protesters, even in the face of Klan and police brutality.
The suspects charged in the beating saw their charges dropped, while the lawsuit against the city filed by Shuttlesworth failed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld Birmingham's rule giving discretion over pupil placement directly to school superintendents.
A lawsuit filed on June 17, 1960 by barber James Armstrong set the stage for court-ordered desegregation of Birmingham City Schools. At that time, the system had 39,659 white students in 58 schools and 33,715 black students in 47 schools. Both students and faculty were still strictly segregated by race.
Judge Seybourn Lynne ruled in favor of the defendants, saying that the plaintiffs had not pursued all administrative options to obtain relief from the school board. A federal appeals court overruled Lynne on July 17, 1963 and ordered the board to begin drawing up a desegregation plan to go into effect that September.
Graymont Elementary School was the first white school to have a black student in attendance, when Dwight and Floyd Armstrong enrolled on the morning of September 4. A crowd of about 200 white protesters shouted epithets outside the school. A bus full of armed police eventually engaged the protesters with nightsticks. Those efforts were helped by a heavy rain that moved into the area.
A bomb which exploded that night at the home of Civil Rights activist Arthur Shores provoked the school system to close temporarily. When schools reopened on September 9, Alabama state troopers acted under orders from Governor George Wallace to prevent the black children from entering the schools. President Kennedy responded by sending the National Guard to escort transfers into West End High School and Ramsay High School on September 10. Five days later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four young girls.
In the Spring of 1964 only nine black children were regularly attending classes with white students in Birmingham schools. On June 18 the appeals court issued more requirements to the board, noting that, "the time for mere 'deliberate speed' has run out." The city was required to desegregate grades 9 through 11 within two years, grades 6-8 within three years, and to desegregate one grade per year in the elementary schools, beginning with first graders.
The system's flagship, Phillips High School, admitted its first African American students—Lillie Mae Jones, Minnie Lee Moore, and Patricia Patton on September 3, 1964. That Spring 57 black students were attending classes with white children.
In 1966 the U.S. Department of Justice joined the Armstrong v. Birmingham Board of Education as a plaintiff under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That spring the number of black students in class with white children reached 361. By 1967 2,874 black children were enrolled at formerly white Birmingham schools. That year the courts ordered Birmingham to adopt a "freedom of choice" plan for desegregation. That requirement was reversed by a federal court in another case in favor of more expeditious plans, such as rezoning. Between 1968 and 1970 those requirements were specifically applied to Birmingham, Bessemer and Jefferson County by Judge Lynne. The systems were also ordered to reassign teachers to achieve racial integration among faculty.
Integration of neighborhood elementary schools proceeded slowly through the rest of the decade, with students from the all-black Dudley School moving into an expanded Inglenook Elementary School as late as 1969.
Beginning in 1965 separate court challenges to Bessemer City Schools and Jefferson County Schools were filed. Eight black students were enrolled at formerly all-white county schools that fall. The courts ruled in 1967 that both systems had an "affirmative duty" to integrate their schools and to insure that all schools had equal facilities, equipment and teaching materials.
Meanwhile, the 1960s saw rapid white flight from Birmingham into the over the mountain suburbs and other independent municipalities, reducing overall enrollment from 70,000 to 43,000 in 20 years while the percentage of African American students in the system rose from 50 percent to 80 percent. Judge Sam Pointer ordered the newly-created suburban systems to join with Jefferson County in a uniform desegregation plan which, in 1975, began to include cross-zone busing. Nevertheless, in 1979 Birmingham and Jefferson County schools remained among the most segregated in the United States.
When Seybourn Lynne retired in 1973 the administration of Armstrong v. Birmingham Board of Education passed to J. Foy Guin. He approved Birmingham's plan to create four new magnet schools, which were intended to maintain close to a 50-50 mix of black and white students from across the entire city. Continuing white flight resulted in an overall decline in enrollment in Birmingham schools to 47,076, of which only 24% of students were white.
Guin finally dismissed Armstrong's suit on October 31, 1983. He determined that the system had demonstrated that its magnet school programs had attracted enough black students to formerly white schools to achieve "racial mix goals" and to establish a "unitary" system without forced busing.