Armstrong v. Birmingham Board of Education

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Armstrong v. Board of Education of City of Birmingham, Alabama was the federal lawsuit, filed on June 17, 1960 on behalf of the sons of barber James Armstrong, which finally resulted in the forced desegregation of Birmingham City Schools.


In 1954 The United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. 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 with 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 that 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 white 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 the Superintendent's discretion to refuse to enroll particular students at particular schools.


Armstrong's suit sought to enroll his two sons, Dwight and Floyd at Graymont Elementary School. It was argued by attorneys W. L. Williams of Birmingham and Ernest D. Jackson, Sr of Jacksonville, Florida. Armstrong's suit came to Seybourn Lynne, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, in late 1960. He combined the case with a similar action brought by Theodore Nelson (later dismissed because Nelson's family moved out of Birmingham) and began hearing arguments in late 1962.

Attorneys for the Birmingham Board of Education argued that "regulations governing the assignment and transfers of pupils in the Birmingham school system had been in effect since June 1958 for the purpose of implementing the Alabama law". On May 28, 1963 Lynne ruled that the plaintiffs had not exhausted their appeals to system administrators and state courts and therefore he had no basis for federal action.

Lynne's order was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which heard arguments in Montgomery beginning June 26. New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Constance Motley was brought in as lead attorney. Williams and Jackson attended, along with fellow Birmingham attorneys Orzell Billingsley, Jr and Peter Hall. On July 12, 1963, the Circuit Court ordered Lynne to reverse his decision and require the school system to prepare a desegregation plan for his approval for implementation that September. Despite some maneuvers to try to get the Circuit Court to reconsider, the system did submit a plan to admit black students to Graymont Elementary School, Ramsay High School and West End High School that fall.


Dwight and Floyd Armstrong arrived with their father to register for classes at Graymont on the Morning of September 4. They were greeted outside by a crowd of anti-integration protesters, but successfully enrolled. Only 45 of the school's 345 white students attended that day. That night, a bomb exploded at the home of Civil Rights activist Arthur Shores. Facing the prospect of all-out riots, the school system decided to close temporarily.

When schools reopened on September 9, Alabama State Troopers, under orders from Governor George Wallace, prevented 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. That was also the Armstrong's first day of class at Graymont. Five days later, 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, killing four young girls.

Birmingham's flagship, Phillips High School, finally admitted its first African American students, (Lillie Mae Jones, Minnie Lee Moore, and Patricia Patton) a year later, on September 3, 1964. 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 to 80 percent.

Armstrong's suit was finally dismissed in 1983 by U. S. District Court judge J. Foy Guin. 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" without forced busing.


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