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With All Deliberate Speed
Behind-the-scenes records reveal how the Supreme Court reached its fateful desegregation decisions
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
The court showed that it was not “callously indifferent” to the difficulties of reorganizing southern society, as Hamilton Basso had said the South believed most of the nation was. The decision in fact gave every opportunity to the South to itself solve whatever problems accompanied desegregation—and in its own good time.
As the 1954 decision had been clearly for the Negro plaintiffs, this 1955 decision was clearly for the defendant school boards. Together, the two decisions were an attempt to balance the claims of the two parties, to reconcile “public and private needs.”
The court solved the how of desegregation by attempting to be neither so vague as to invite “confusion and evasion” nor so specific that the court would become the nation’s school board. The burden of desegregating was placed on the local school boards, with the lower courts required to consider “whether the action of school authorities constitutes good faith implementation of the governing constitutional principles.”
But the lower courts were not left to flounder. As Warren had suggested in the April 16 conference, they were given general guidelines: they were to adjust and reconcile “public and private needs”; they could consider “problems related to administration, arising from the physical conditions of the school plant, transportation system, personnel, revision of school districts and attendance areas into compact units to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a non-racial basis”; and there was to be no gerrymandering. However, as Chief Justice Warren had also said in the April 16 conference, psychological factors were to be disallowed, and the opinion reaffirmed it: “the vitality of these constitutional principles cannot be allowed to yield simply because of disagreement with them.”
The crucial question of when was reserved until the last paragraph. It was not going to be the beginning of the next school term, as NAACP lawyers had urged. Frankfurter had warned the court in a memorandum against requiring a deadline, because, he said, it would have to be an arbitrary deadline and would be considered “an imposition of our will without the ascertainment … of the local situation. And it would tend to alienate instead of enlist favorable or educable local sentiment.” Instead, the phrase in Frankfurter’s January, 1954, memorandum appeared in the final decision: “the cases are remanded to the District Courts to take such proceedings and enter such orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases. …”
In the years since the desegregation decisions most observers have credited Chief Justice Warren with welding the various individuals together to achieve unanimity. Warren modestly denies it: “It was the most self-effacing job ever written there. … Everyone there was so cooperative and so helpful,” he has said, going on to give credit to the three Southerners on the court—Clark, Reed, and Black—”not because they developed the legal philosophy of it, but because they had the courage to do what was done.” It was, Warren points out, “tough for them to go home” for a time.
Justice Frankfurter had made the same observation, but with an added dimension, in a note he wrote to Justice Reed three days after the 1954 decision. It read: History does not record dangers averted. I have no doubt that if the Segregation cases had reached decision last Term there would have been four dissenters—Vinson, Reed, Jackson and Clark—and certainly several opinions for the majority view. That would have been catastrophic. And if we had not had unanimity now inevitably there would have been more than one opinion for the majority. That would have been disastrous. It ought to give you much satisfaction to be able to say, as you have every right to say, “I have done the State some service.” I am inclined to think, indeed I believe, in no single act since you have been on this Court have you done the Republic a more lasting service. I am not unaware of the hard struggle this involved in the conscience of your mind and in the mind of your conscience. I am not unaware, because all I have to do is look within. As a citizen of the Republic, even more than as a colleague, I feel deep gratitude for your share in what I believe to be a great good for our nation.