Date of Award

Fall 1-5-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

H. Robert Baker

Second Advisor

Michelle Brattain

Third Advisor

David Sehat


This study examines the legal struggle over school desegregation in Alabama in the two decades following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision of 1954. It seeks to better understand the activists who mounted a litigious assault on segregated education, the segregationists who opposed them, and the ways in which law shaped both of these efforts. Inspired by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) campaign to implement Brown, blacks sought access to their constitutional rights in the state’s federal courts, where they were ultimately able to force substantial compliance. Whites, however, converted massive resistance into an ostensibly colorblind movement to preserve “law and order,” while at the same time taking effective measures to preserve segregation and white privilege.

As soon as the NAACP implementation campaign began, self-styled moderate segregationists began to abandon self-defeating forms of resistance and to fashion a creed of “law and order.” When black activists achieved a litigious breakthrough in 1963, the developing creed allowed segregationists to reject violence and outright defiance of the law, to accept token desegregation, and to begin to stake their own claims to constitutional rights – all without forcing them to repudiate segregation and white supremacy. When continuing litigation forced school systems to abandon ineffective “freedom of choice” desegregation plans for compulsory pupil assignment plans, these so-called moderates began using their individual rights language to justify flight to private segregationist academies, independent suburban school systems, and otherwise safely white school districts. Political and legal historians have underappreciated the deep and broad roots of the narrative of white racial innocence, the endurance of massive resistance, and the pivotal role which school desegregation litigation played in channeling both into a broader movement towards modern conservatism.

The cases considered here – particularly the statewide Lee v. Macon County Board of Education case – demonstrate the effectiveness of litigation in bringing down official state and local barriers to equal opportunity for minorities and in enforcing constitutional law. But they also showcase the limits of litigation in effecting social justice in the face of powerfully constructed narratives of resistance seemingly built upon the nation’s founding principles.