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Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

Years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the State of Virginia implemented a policy to continue segregation. In this lesson, we will learn how the Supreme Court dealt with that plan.

Separate and Not Equal

Segregation became a byproduct of freedom in the post-slavery South. By law African Americans were free, but that same law said that they should be separate as long as things were equal. But can forced separation ever be equal? Or free? This is the issue the Supreme Court faced in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964).

Facts of the Case

The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawed a school plan of separate but equal, which were laws and policies that allowed certain public institutions and areas to remain segregated as long as there were equal. In Virginia, the legislature initiated a coordinated and official policy known as massive resistance, which passed laws to continue the now outlawed segregation of public schools.

One of these laws prohibited any integrated schools from receiving state funds and gave the Governor the power to order any integrated school closed. It also authorized the creation of a three-member panel, called the Pupil Placement Panel that would determine the placement of all public school children based entirely on race.

These plans were themselves met with resistance in the form of lawsuits, federal court rulings and community protests. When the National Guard was called to enforce the integration of public schools in Arkansas, many Virginians saw the writing on the wall and began to put pressure on the Virginia government to formally end segregation in their schools and adhere to the Courts ruling in Brown.

On September 24, 1957, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, AR.
School Segregation

However, the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors ignored the order to integrate their schools and instead didn't appropriate any money for the public schools in the county, which effectively closed all public schools. The county supervisors took their education funds and created tuition grants for all students, ''regardless of race'' to use for private schools. Yet there were no private schools for blacks, and almost all other private schools didn't accept black applicants.

In 1959, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to order the public schools open to all students. At first they refrained because of the pending legal question of whether the Virginia Constitution required the opening of the schools.

After two years of delays, the District Court finally ordered all of the schools in Prince Edward County to open to all students, however, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals did an about face and reversed that order ruling that the District Court should have waited until the Virginia Supreme Court had a chance to rule on whether the county's school closure violated the state constitution. A group of black students appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issues and Decision

The Supreme Court faced two issues; first was whether the Fourth Circuit was correct in ordering the District Court to wait to issue their order until the Virginia Supreme Court had ruled. The second was whether Prince Edward County Supervisors' decision to not fund the public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause which required that everyone be treated equally under the law. The Court ruled in favor of the students on both issues.

On the first procedural issue, Prince Edward County argued that the 11th Amendment, which prohibited the federal government from exercising judicial power in suits against a state brought by their own citizens, prevented the District Court from reviewing a state issue, let alone order the opening of the schools. Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority, and he cited Ex parte Young (1908), which held the 11th Amendment does not preclude federal courts from reviewing state issues of law if it involved the the U.S. Constitution. Black then reasoned that since the present case deals with a violation of the 14th Amendment, the 11th Amendment does not apply.

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