Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968)

by the Honorable Patricia Polson Satterfield, Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York (Ret.)

“When this opinion is handed down, the traffic light will have changed from Brown to Green.” –U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, 1968.

The trilogy of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decisions of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) [Brown I] and  (1955) [Brown II] and Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia (1968), chronicles the history of the long struggle for integration in public schools.  This article focuses on the enormous impact of the little known and almost forgotten case brought by Dr. Calvin Coolidge Green, a native of Middlesex County, in the name of his youngest son, Charles C. Green, who attended the black elementary school in New Kent County.  It reminds some of us and informs others of the immense struggles and tremendous sacrifices of ordinary people who fought to realize the constitutional promise of equal treatment, guaranteed by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

On July 9, 1868, soon after the ending of the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified. It, in part, granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. It further forbid states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  This amendment gave rise to many lawsuits alleging unequal treatment of the newly recognized citizens by the states in areas such as public accommodations, voting rights, transportation, medical care and treatment, and education.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, purchased a first-class ticket in Louisiana and sat in the white-designated railroad car. Plessy was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act and argued in court that the Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment.  The 1896 landmark Supreme Court decision, upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in public facilities and thereby sanctioned state sponsored segregation in nearly every facet of life under the guise of “separate but equal.” Over five decades later, that decision was overturned, due to unrelenting litigation by civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, challenging Jim Crow laws spurred by Plessy v. Ferguson.  Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka [Brown I], a case that consolidated five lawsuits, including one challenging the closing of public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, to avoid integration, challenged on constitutional grounds the segregation of public schools.  In 1954, the Supreme Court, in the second landmark decision, overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine, upon the finding that de jure segregation, segregation mandated by law, violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Brown I, the Supreme Court expressly held that “separated educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The Supreme Court in Brown I, however, failed to define the means by which schools would be desegregated or give any guidance to localities as to how to effectuate desegregation.  This it attempted to do in in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1955) [Brown II], in which it directed the states to desegregate with “all deliberate speed,” but set no timetable for desegregation, and left the assessment of the efficacy of implementation to the southern federal courts.

Implementation was slow.  After the two Brown decisions in 1954 and 1955, the State of Virginia developed several strategies to preserve segregated schools.  “Massive Resistance,” a phrase coined by the State of Virginia, established an opposition movement to the Brown decision. That movement gained momentum throughout the South and led, in 1956, to an amendment of the Virginia State Constitution.  That amendment granted money for private-school tuition for any student assigned to a desegregated school, and, beginning in 1958, resulted in the closing, rather than desegregating, of schools, in several localities, including Warren County, Charlottesville, Norfolk, and West Point. The school closing component of massive resistance was declared unconstitutional by state and federal courts in 1959.  Continued were the evasive tactics of private school tuition grants for white students, discriminatory pupil placement laws for black students, and the “freedom of choice” plan that allowed students and parents to select, by completing a pupil assignment form, to attend either the all-black or all-white school. The freedom of choice plan resulted in minimal desegregation.  At each turn, the State of Virginia was challenged by the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP that together with the National Office, and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund sought to force implementation of the Brown decisions through the filing of lawsuits. Dr. Calvin Coolidge Green played an integral role in the ultimate demise of segregated schools.

In 1956, Dr. Green, who taught in Richmond, Virginia, moved his wife and three school-aged sons from Middlesex County to nearby New Kent County, where his wife taught Home Economics at George W. Watkins High School.   At the time of the family relocation, New Kent County had two high schools:  George W. Watkins High School for black students and New Kent High School for white students. Similarly, the County maintained separate elementary schools for black and white students. Upon relocation, Dr. Green became very active in the local branch of the NAACP, became its president in 1960, and, in the early 1960s, began pressuring the local school board to comply with the Brown decisions. In 1964, at a meeting in Richmond, Virginia, of the State Conference of the NAACP, the attorneys for the organization discussed the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its threat to cut off federal funding to localities that refused to develop a plan to integrate their schools.  The attorneys explained to the attendees, including Dr. Green, that the passage of the new Civil Rights Act laid the groundwork for greater federal enforcement of school desegregation because Title VI forbade racial discrimination in any program receiving federal funds.  It was recognized that the Act was a powerful new weapon for the NAACP that could be used in Virginia to compel the integration of public schools.  The NAACP lawyers asked for determined and courageous individuals to sponsor lawsuits against their local school boards.   Dr. Green immediately volunteered.  The stage was set “for what would be one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions since Brown v. Board of Education.” 

Following the New Kent County School Board’s repeated refusal to take steps to integrate the County’s schools at the request of the local NAACP and parents, a lawsuit was commenced on behalf of Dr. Green’s youngest son, Charles, who was most likely to still be a public-school student when the case ultimately was decided.  Charles C. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, 391 U.S.430, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in March 1965, challenged the school board of New Kent County’s failure to develop any desegregation plan and its maintenance of schools that remained one hundred percent segregated ten years after Brown. The lawsuit specifically attacked the County’s 1965 “freedom-of-choice” plan.

The negative reaction to the lawsuit was swift and brutal, with increased threats and intimidation against blacks.  The Green family suffered severe financial hardships resulting from the school board’s refusal to renew Mrs. Green’s teaching contract. The black community of New Kent County, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, the national NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, notwithstanding harsh consequences, remained steadfast in their assault in the courts upon the County’s “freedom-of-choice” plan.  Their resolve continued in the face of defeats in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 1966 and the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, both of which ruled that the freedom-of-choice plan that ostensibly gave every student the option of freely choosing the school he or she wished to attend met the integration mandate of Brown I and II. 

The Supreme Court disagreed, and in 1968 rendered its third landmark decision that clearly set forth the mandate of Brown II, 391 U.S.430, 437-438:

Brown II was a call for the dismantling of well entrenched dual

systems tempered by an awareness that complex and multifaceted

problems would arise which would require time and flexibility for

a successful resolution.  School boards such as the respondent then

operating state-compelled dual systems were nevertheless charged

with the affirmative duty to take whatever steps might be necessary

to convert to a unitary system in which racial discrimination would

be eliminated root and branch (citations omitted).  The constitutional

rights of Negro school children articulated in Brown I permit no less

than this, and it was to this end that Brown II commanded school

boards to bend their efforts.

The Supreme Court held that the “New Kent School Board’s ‘freedom of choice’ plan cannot be accepted as a sufficient step to ‘effectuate a transition’ to a unitary system.”  Instead, the Court found that “[r]ather than further the dismantling of the dual system, the plan has operated simply to burden children and their parents with a responsibility which Brown II placed squarely on the School Board.  The Board must be required to formulate a new plan and, in light of other courses which appear open to the Board, such as zoning, fashion steps which promise realistically to convert promptly to a system without a ‘white’ school and a ‘Negro’ school, but just schools” [391 U.S. at 441-442].  A few years later, following subsequent Supreme Court decision rendered between 1969 and 1971, the Green decision and its progeny led to the attainment of the ultimate objective of the civil rights movement: the integration of southern public schools.

The Green case that arose in rural New Kent County, Virginia, affected school systems throughout the nation. It outlined the duty of school boards to affirmatively eliminate all vestiges of state-imposed segregation and reset the Brown’s objective from prohibition of segregation into a requirement of integration.  Because of Green, federal courts recognized de facto segregation, or in fact segregation, in the north that resulted in school segregation related to discriminatory policies, including housing.  This recognition resulted in court mandates to northern school boards to re-fashion their desegregation plans to eliminate dual school systems as well and led to hotly contested school busing in urban areas as a means of eliminating segregation.

In sum, it took many decades, but Brown v. Board of Education I and II decimated the “separate but equal” doctrine espoused by Plessy v. Ferguson that perpetuated segregation, declared that doctrine to be unconstitutional, specifically in public schools, and mandated the elimination of desegregation in public schools.  It took the strength, courage and fortitude of Dr. Calvin Coolidge Green, a Middlesex County native and a product of segregated public schools in Middlesex County, together with the Virginia Conference of the NAACP, the National Office of the NAACP, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to pursue the monumental case of Charles Green v. County School Board of New Kent Virginia, argued on April 3, 1968, one day before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and decided on May 27, 1968, fourteen years after Brown I, and one hundred years after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment on July 9, 1868, that guaranteed equal protection under the law.

[I am indebted to Dr. Brian J. Daugherity for providing to me the following resource materials that enabled me to write this article: Allen, Jody and Daugherity, Brian J.  “Recovering a ‘Lost’ Story Using Oral History: The United States Supreme Court’s Historic ‘Green v. New Kent County Virginia”, Decision,”, Oral History Review, vol. 3, issue 2, pp. 25-26 (June 2006). “Keep on Keeping On: African Americans and the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education in Virginia,” With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v Board of Education, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press), 2008, Brian J. Daugherity and Charles Bolton, Editors.  Allen, Jody, Daugherity, Brian J., and Sarah Trembanis. “New Kent School and the George W. Watkins School: From Freedom of Choice to Integration,” Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching, Section 3: Education, p. 271. National Park Services, Department of the Interior. 2001.]