Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 19 (1969), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ordered immediate desegregation of public schools in the American South. It followed 15 years of delays to integrate by most Southern school boards after the Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
Justice Felix Frankfurter demanded that the opinion in 1955’s Brown v. Board of Education II order desegregation with the phrase of “all deliberate speed”. The South took it as an excuse to emphasize “deliberate” over “speed” and conducted resistance to desegregating schools, in some jurisdictions closing public schools altogether. For fifteen years, schools in the South remained segregated.
Early in the summer of 1969, the federal appeals court had asked the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to submit desegregation plans for thirty-three school districts in Mississippi includingHolmes County School District (Mississippi), so HEW could order them implemented at the beginning of the school year. HEW was responsible for drawing up desegregation plans, as mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and had submitted the plans on time. At the last minute, however, both HEW and the Justice Department asked the courts for extensions until December 1, claiming that the plans would result in confusion and setbacks. This was the first time the federal government had supported a desegregation delay in the federal courts. The Fifth Circuit granted the delay, and no specific date for implementing the desegregation plans was set.
Justice Hugo Black, the supervisory Justice for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, considered this delay to be Nixon’s payoff to the South, after its electoral support had helped him win the presidential election, and as part of his “Southern Strategy” of appealing to conservative whites. The NAACP contacted Black to contest the delay in desegregation. On September 3, Black received a memo from the Justice Department – Solicitor General Griswold was urging Black to permit the Mississippi delay. Black reluctantly permitted the delay as supervisory Justice, but invited the NAACP to bring the case to the Supreme Court as soon as possible.
The case was brought as Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education.