Freeman v. Pitts

In Freeman v. Pitts (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to determine whether a trial federal court had discretion to relinquish jurisdiction over portions of a school board’s constitutionally required desegregation plan before it declared that all aspects of a school district’s operations were declared “unitary” or free from discrimination. The Court ruled that a federal trial court does have such authority to release a school board from active judicial oversight incrementally before the board’s district achieves full unitary status as long as officials observe specified equitable principles. This entry describes Freeman’s facts, its historic context, and the equitable principles that the Court identified. Freeman was a significant step toward ending decades-long judicial supervision of desegregating districts and accelerating the process of returning control of schools to local officials, even where dramatic demographic changes in the region had resulted in resegregation.

Facts of the Case

At the time of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the segregation of children on the basis of race in the 21 southern and border states was nearly complete, with few Blacks attending other than virtually all-Black schools. The problem was exacerbated because in Brown II (1955) the Court gave a vague deadline, requiring officials to dismantle dual systems “with all deliberate speed.” Thus, segregation persisted for more than a generation of school-aged children.

It was not until the late 1960s that the Supreme Court, in Green v. New Kent County School Board (1968), ordered school officials in local districts to take affirmative steps to eliminate unconstitutional segregation “root and branch” by coming forward with plans that “promise realistically to work, and work now” (p. 439). In Green, the Court went on to command the creation of unitary systems free from discrimination not only in student assignment, but also in five additional areas of school system operations: curriculum, staffing, extracurricular activities, facilities, and transportation.

Between 1968 and 1972, in the wake of Green, over 1 million Black children entered formerly all- White schools in districts across the southeast. One of these districts was the DeKalb County School System (DCSS) serving suburban Atlanta, the focus of Freeman. DCSS entered into a consent order in 1969 to dismantle its unlawfully segregated school system. Seventeen years later, in 1986, the school board petitioned a federal trial court to declare it unitary and relieve it of judicial oversight.

Afederal trial court in Freeman ruled that while the school system achieved unitary status in four of the six areas required by the Supreme Court in Green, it had not yet completely eliminated discrimination in two areas—faculty assignments and the allocation of resources. The court thus proceeded to order more relief with respect to those two facets of district operations, but declined to exert continuing control over the four other areas of school operations. One of the areas the court indicated it would order no additional relief in was student assignment, noting that officials had acted in good faith in attempting to balance the schools racially, even though the balance was fleeting due to dramatic changes in the system’s Black enrollment, which grew from less than 6% to more than 47% between 1969 and 1986.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, concluding that, as a matter of law, a trial court must retain full remedial authority over a school system until it achieves unitary status in all of the Green categories at the same time for a period of years, even if doing so necessitates making continuing corrections in student assignments to compensate for changing demographics within a school system.

The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court granted review and, in an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, reversed and remanded the decision of the Eleventh Circuit. In Freeman, the Court held that in appropriate circumstances, “Federal courts have the authority to relinquish control of a school district in incremental stages, before full compliance has been achieved in every area of school operations” (p. 490). The Court also found that the circumstances in this case appeared to reflect the appropriate exercise of equitable authority.

In determining whether federal courts are exercising their authority appropriately in such situations, the Court identified three factors: whether school officials provided full compliance in the areas to be withdrawn from court supervision; whether retaining control of some areas was necessary to achieve compliance in other areas not yet considered unitary; and whether school officials demonstrated good faith commitment to the whole plan.

The Court suggested that the board met all three of the conditions even though resegregation was evident in the DCSS. In doing so, the Court maintained,

Where segregation is the product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications. It is beyond the authority and beyond the practical ability of the federal courts to try to counteract these kinds of continuous and massive demographic shifts. (p. 495)

The Court remanded the dispute to the Eleventh Circuit for possible further consideration of the question of whether continuing control over pupil assignment was needed in order for the school system to achieve compliance in the two areas not yet in full compliance.

With this ruling, one of the major obstacles facing desegregating schools—sustaining racial balance in the face of dramatic demographic changes—was lessened, contributing to the immediate relaxation and accelerating the ultimate ending of federal court supervision more than 35 years after the Court’s ruling in Brown.

Charles B. Vergon

See also Dowell v. Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

Further Readings

  • Orfield, G., Eaton, S., & Harvard Project on School Desegregation. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press. 

Legal Citations