Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education

PETITIONER: Beatrice Alexander
RESPONDENT: Holmes County Board of Education
LOCATION: Holmes County Board of Education

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 396 US 19 (1969)
ARGUED: Oct 23, 1969
DECIDED: Oct 29, 1969

A. F. Summer - For the Respondent
Jack Greenberg - For the Petitioner
Jeris Leonard - For the Respondent
John C. Satterfield - For the Respondent

Facts of the case

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ordered school districts across the country to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” However, nearly fifteen years after this order, many school districts, including schools in Holmes County, Mississippi, were either still segregated or saddled with laws making it very difficult for full integration to take place. In the summer of 1969, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi entered an order allowing the schools in Mississippi to continue using “freedom of choice” laws, which allowed parents to choose which school their children attended. The petitioners appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on July 23, 1969. That court, in a per curiam decision, reversed the lower court, but required the school districts to create and submit alternate plans by August 27, 1969. The petitioners then appealed. 


Should the Supreme Court allow any further delay in the complete desegregation of the nations’ school?

Media for Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 23, 1969 in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education

Warren E. Burger:

Number 632, Alexander and others against Holmes County Board of Education and others.

Mr. Greenberg you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Jack Greenberg:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

These cases are here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

They involved the issue of the timing of desegregation of 14 Mississippi school districts and the procedure by which is to be accomplished.

The basic issue here is how much longer Negro school children in these cases in 14 Mississippi school districts must wait to realize their constitutional right to attend desegregated school systems required by this Court more than 15 years --

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Greenberg, I overlooked advising you and your co-counsel and friends that Mr. Justice Brennan is unavoidably detained but he will participate in the case on the basis of course the entire record, the briefs and the tape recording of the oral arguments.

Excuse me for not having clarified that right at the onset.

Jack Greenberg:

Thank you Mr. Chief Justice.

The basic issue here as I said a moment ago is how much longer Negro school children in these districts must wait to realize their constitutional right to attend desegregated schools decreed by this Court more than 15 years ago.

The law has been disobeyed by respondent districts and the courts below have not required obedience.

We submit that the issues must be seen in historical context.

For only in that context is it apparent why as we urge that this Court's expression on timing must be unequivocal and further what particular procedures which we will describe below are called for to achieve compliance for the Constitution.

The plaintiffs in this case live in school district in a state whose resistance to the Fourteenth Amendment has been second to none.

From 1954 to 1964, note, there was no school desegregation in Mississippi.

Instead, the State has doctrines of interposition and nullification.

Indeed, the University of Mississippi desegregated not until more than a decade after this Court's decision in Sweatt against Painter.

Only after what can be called resistance with the quality of rebellion and that of the cost of life, not until 1964 that the Mississippi Federal Courts acknowledged that children of that State were subject to the requirements of Brown against Board of Education.

And the first case was Evers against Jackson Municipal Separate School District.

Shortly after the filing of that case, Medger Evers, the plaintiff was shot and killed.

A fact which bears upon respondents school districts continue to search and that freedom of choice can be a reality in Mississippi.

But the sorriest part of the story lies in the exercise of discretion by some of United States District judges in that state.

That discretion which in ordinary cases is necessary and salutary has been as to the setting of hearings, the time it takes to render judgments, the refusal to follow the plain intendment of decisions of this Court, the Court of Appeals and the exploitation of ambiguity is real ambiguities and fancy ambiguities in the decisions of this Court and the Court of Appeals.

The District Court has commenced disciplinary proceedings against the civil rights lawyer or Jess Brown merely because he filed the Leake County case which is here as part of these proceedings and sought to keep out of state civil rights lawyers from handling cases in the state only to be reversed by the Court of Appeals.

All of this has had the effect of perpetuating the status quo pendente lite.

And so far in Mississippi, the status quo pendente lite has been racial segregation or minimal token desegregation.

Indeed in these cases, the delay on the District Court became so great that the Court of Appeals was required to take the unusual step in an order of August 20, 1968 of setting a deadline for hearing the District Court.

Plaintiffs in the United States had appealed from the District Court's refusal to set an early hearing on motions following these Courts decision in Green against New Kent County.

The Court of Appeals set November 4, 1968 as the deadline for hearing on plaintiffs' motions and it directed the District Court to enter an order granting relief within the 1968-1969 school year.

The District Court did neither not withstanding the Court of Appeals November 4th deadline, the District Court failed to render an opinion for five months and this precluded any relief for the 1968-1969 school year.