Lee v. Macon County Board of Education is a pivotal civil rights case that sought the integration of the all-white Tuskegee High School in Macon County. The initial 1963 lawsuit was later expanded to include all of the state's primary and secondary schools, two-year postsecondary schools, and public universities. In March 1967, a three-judge federal district court consisting of Frank M. Johnson Jr., Richard T. Rives, and Harlan H. Grooms issued a blanket desegregation order in the Lee v. Macon County case. When that decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wallace v. United States, it became a blueprint for school desegregation plans from that time forward. Since then, the federal courts and the U.S. Department of Justice have worked with Alabama's school districts to formulate compliance plans and have overseen their implementation. As of 2013, nearly 50 Alabama school districts remain under the supervision of the court and the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the Lee v. Macon County case.
Brown v. Board of Education
The legal battle that spawned Lee v. Macon County began with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional all state laws mandating separate public schools for black and white students. A second ruling the following year, known as Brown II, assigned the task of carrying out school desegregation to federal district courts, with orders that integration occur "with all deliberate speed." That ruling paved the way for lawsuits to force schools that remained segregated to comply with the law.
In Alabama, as in most southern states, the initial efforts to enforce the Brown decision involved integrating the state universities. In 1956, Autherine Lucy's failed efforts to attend the University of Alabama became one of the first tests of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision. Legal efforts to desegregate Alabama's primary and secondary schools soon followed. In 1957, Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth launched a legal battle (Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham Board of Education) to compel the Birmingham school district to integrate, naming two of his own children as plaintiffs in his efforts to enroll them at an all-white school; a number of similar suits followed across the state. The legal campaign was hampered by the need to file suit against each of the state's more than 100 school districts and commissions individually. That hurdle was overcome through the lawsuit filed against the Macon County Board of Education by civil rights attorney Fred Gray on January 28, 1963. Fourteen black students who had been denied admission to all-white Tuskegee High School sued to be admitted to the school. Among the group were brothers Anthony and Henry Lee; they were named as the lead plaintiffs, and their last name would become synonymous with the case: Lee v. Macon County Board of Education. Gray along with several other attorneys with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) represented the plaintiffs, and State Attorney General Richmond Flowers represented the state.
In July 1963, Judge Johnson added the United States to the case and a month later issued a desegregation order for Tuskegee High School that set the stage for a showdown with Gov. George Wallace. On September 2, the day the school was scheduled to begin the fall term, Wallace issued an executive order postponing the start of classes for a week and placed hundreds of state troopers around the high school to enforce the order. Johnson responded by convening an ad-hoc group of all five federal district judges that issued a temporary restraining order against Wallace preventing him from interfering with school desegregation in Tuskegee as well as in Birmingham and Mobile, where similar desegregation efforts were taking place. The governor evaded federal marshals attempting to deliver the order and mobilized the National Guard, placing troops at each of the schools to prevent black students from entering. The crisis ended when Pres. John F. Kennedy federalized the Guard, who then returned to their armories. With the local police in control, nine previously all-white high schools in Birmingham, Mobile, and Tuskegee admitted their first black students. A month later, the five-judge panel permanently barred Wallace from interfering with school desegregation, although he continued to attempt to work around the order.
Following the admission of the black students at Tuskegee High School, all of the white students transferred to two nearby Macon County schools that remained all white. The State Board of Education (SBE) then ordered the school district to provide busing for them. In addition, the all-white private Macon Academy high school was established in the county, and Wallace promised parents that they would receive grants-in-aid from the state to help pay tuition. By January 1964, two students had dropped out of the case, and the 12 remaining students were the only African Americans who remained enrolled in Tuskegee High School. Wallace and the SBE then closed the school and transferred the students to all-black Tuskegee Institute High School. In response, the three-judge district court panel ordered the black students transferred to the two all-white county schools, Macon County High School in Notasulga and Shorter High School, provided busing for them and prohibited the use of grants-in-aid to compensate the white families. (Many white families responded to the Lee case, Judge Johnson's decisions, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act that empowered the federal government to withhold education funds from noncompliant school districts by establishing numerous Macon Academy-like "segregation academies" in Alabama and the rest of the South.)
By ordering the closure of the schools and providing busing and private-school tuition grants, Wallace had unwittingly opened the door to the statewide expansion of the Macon County case. Gray argued that Wallace's actions demonstrated that the state, not individual school boards, controlled education policy. In July 1964, the three-judge panel agreed and declared that the state's public school system officially sanctioned racial segregation. The court declined to issue a blanket desegregation order, instead allowing the state the opportunity to do so on its own.
Despite the court order and guidance from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), after more than two years the state had made no progress toward integration. Therefore, the same three-judge panel issued a more sweeping ruling on March 22, 1967, that ordered every school district in the state not under an existing court order to desegregate. The court mandated that 102 city and county school districts meet specific guidelines to be considered in compliance. Johnson drew extensively from the HEW guidelines and ordered schools to eliminate race as criteria when assigning students to specific schools, increase the recruitment and hiring of black teachers while maintaining consistent pupil-teacher ratios at all schools, and remove disparities between the facilities and quality of education at schools with previously all-black or all-white enrollment. The order also struck down as unconstitutional the state's 1955 Pupil Placement Act, which enabled local school boards to deny black applicants admission to all-white schools. Finally, the ruling invalidated the "freedom of choice" desegregation plans employed by some districts to limit black enrollment in all-white schools and also prohibited the state from paying tuition for students attending all-white private schools. The order covered every school under the authority of the state, including trade schools and colleges (with the exception of the University of Alabama and Auburn University, which were already under desegregation orders).
Alabama governor Lurleen Wallace, who had succeeded her husband in 1967, denounced the court decision as a federal infringement on state authority. In an address to a cheering state legislature, she vowed to use state troopers to prevent the implementation of the court order. Her rhetoric proved to be empty, however; when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision in Wallace v. United States later that year, the Alabama schools began to comply. The Lee v. Macon County case was later expanded to include the state's high school athletic associations as well as the integration of faculty and staff members.
On May 22, 2006, more than 43 years after Fred Gray filed the case, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson found the Macon
County School District to be in compliance with the desegregation order, based on federal education guidelines, and dismissed
it from the case. As of January 2013, the Lee v. Macon County case remained open for 21 Alabama school districts, and another 26 continued to be under permanent injunction.
Bass, Jack. Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South's Fight Over Civil Rights. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
Grey, Fred. Bus Ride to Justice: The Life and Works of Fred Gray. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2002.
Jones, Leon. From Brown to Boston: Desegregation in Education, 1954-1974. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1979.
Lesher, Stephan. George Wallace: American Populist. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.
C. J. Schexnayder
Published February 25, 2013
Last updated February 27, 2013