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The Crucible of Desegregation

The Uncertain Search for Educational Equality

Examines the patchwork evolution of school desegregation policy.

In 1954, the Supreme Court delivered the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education—establishing the right to attend a desegregated school as a national constitutional right—but the decision contained fundamental ambiguities. The Supreme Court has never offered a clear definition of what desegregation means or laid out a framework for evaluating competing interpretations. In The Crucible of Desegregation, R. Shep Melnick examines the evolution of federal school desegregation policy from 1954 through the termination of desegregation orders in the first decades of the twenty-first century, combining legal analysis with a focus on institutional relations, particularly the interactions between federal judges and administrators. Melnick argues that years of ambiguous, inconsistent, and meandering Court decisions left lower court judges adrift, forced to apply contradictory Supreme Court precedents in a wide variety of highly charged political and educational contexts. As a result, desegregation policy has been a patchwork, with lower court judges playing a crucial role and with little opportunity to analyze what worked and what didn’t. The Crucible of Desegregation reveals persistent patterns and disagreements that continue to roil education policy.

336 pages | 1 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Race and Politics


"The Crucible of Desegregation is tour-de-force analysis of the rise and fall of desegregation and integration. This is well-trodden terrain, but if you think you know everything worth knowing about the topic, think again. This meticulously researched, elegantly written, scrupulously fair-minded account achieves the rarity feat of reshaping our understanding of one of the epochal constitutional and social issues of our time."

David Kirp | University of California-Berkeley | author of "Improbable Scholars"

"The Supreme Court is often praised for the clarity of its vision in Brown v. Board of Education, but its subsequent decisions are clouded with ambiguity. We still do not know whether the Constitution is color blind or conscientiously seeks to perfect the racial composition of the nation’s schools. Without guidance from above, lower courts wander in a maze, and the race question, rather than resolving itself, acquires ever more political intensity. Melnick narrates this story succinctly yet with felicity, balance, and appropriate irony."

Paul Peterson | Harvard Kennedy School

"This magisterial yet compelling and thoroughly readable volume by an eminent scholar unpacks the tangled, touchy saga of U.S. school 'desegregation' with all its confusion over goals and uncertainty concerning benchmarks."

Chester E. Finn | Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Table of Contents

1 Why Desegregation Still Matters
2 The Great Debate
3 Critical Junctures
4 Breakthrough: The Reconstruction of Southern Education
5 Supreme Abdication
6 Left Adrift: Desegregation in the Lower Courts
7 Varieties of Desegregation Experiences
8 Termination without End
9 Looking Beyond Courts: ESEA and Title VI
10 What Have We Learned?

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