Davis v. School Commissioners of Mobile County

Davis v. School Commissioners of Mobile County (1971) involved the adequacy of a desegregation plan for Mobile County, Alabama. The Supreme Court ruled that because the existing desegregation plan did not make use of all possible remedies, it was necessary to return the dispute to a lower court to work out a more realistic plan. Davis was one of the cases in which the Court showed its impatience with school boards that maintained segregated districts, more than 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka struck the practice down.

Facts of the Case

With 73,500 pupils in 1969, the Mobile County school system was 58% White and 42% Black. The school system had transported over 22,000 students every day in 200 school buses during the previous school year.

Previously, the Fifth Circuit had declared that a desegregation plan based on unified geographic zones was inadequate to achieve a unitary school system by eliminating desegregation and the effects of past discrimination. A federal trial court then fashioned another plan, which left 18,623, or 60%, of the district’s Black students in 19 schools that were one-race or almost one-race schools.

When the Fifth Circuit reviewed this plan, it found deficiencies with regard to faculty and staff desegregation. Accordingly, the court ordered the board of education to create a school system wherein the faculty and staff ratios in each school approximated the racial composition of the district as a whole. The Fifth Circuit also directed the board to eliminate the seven Black schools that existed under the trial court’s plan. Under the revised plan, pairing schools and/or adjusting grade structures were to be the vehicles for achieving this goal without busing or split zoning.

Pursuant to the trial court’s order, the school system treated the eastern and western parts of the county as distinct. The court noted that the board achieved desegregation in the western, but not eastern, section of the district, where 12 all-Black or almost all-Black schools still existed. The Fifth Circuit accepted a modified version of a Justice Department plan, which would have reduced the number of all or nearly all the Black schools but still treated the sections as separate entities.

The Court’s Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court began by holding that the Fifth Circuit’s plan was based on inaccurate enrollment projections for Mobile County, because nine, not six, of the elementary schools consisted of all-Black or nearly all-Black student populations. In fact, the Court pointed out that over half of the Black junior and senior high school students were in all-Black or nearly all-Black schools. The Court reasoned that the trial court was not restricted to using only neighborhood school zoning. Once constitutional violations are discovered, the Court maintained, the trial court should have used every available remedy to restructure contiguous and noncontiguous attendance zones.

The Supreme Court found that the Fifth Circuit should have abandoned treating the eastern and western sections separately. The Court also declared that the Fifth Circuit gave inadequate attention to using bus transportation and split zoning as remedies. Citing Green v. County School Board (1968), the Court remanded with instructions to fashion a remedy that promised to work realistically at the present time.

The Davis Court thus made it clear to school boards that desegregation plans must be realistic and must work to create unitary school systems immediately.

J. Patrick Mahon

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Civil Rights Movement; Fourteenth Amendment; Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

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