Resource: Lee v. Macon County Board of Education: The Possibilities of Federal Enforcement of Equal Educational Opportunity

By: Brian K. Landsberg

January 1, 2016

Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy

Lee v. Macon County Board of Education shows the evolution of the role of the three branches in enforcing the equal protection clause in public education in Alabama. All three branches initially acquiesced in the separate but equal doctrine. The executive and the judicial branches rejected the doctrine in Brown, but the legislative branch remained silent until 1964. Despite Congress’ failure to authorize a federal role in desegregation, the Department of Justice was an active participant in Lee beginning in 1963. When Congress finally did act in 1964 to authorize such suits, it encumbered the authorization with severe limitations. Congress also created a parallel enforcement mechanism, in Title VI of the 1964 Act. In later years, Congress and the executive have emphasized general reform of education as the answer, in legislation such as No Child Left Behind. My paper explores the role of the federal government in the statewide desegregation of Alabama’s public schools. Federal court litigation in Lee v. Macon County Board of Education led to an extraordinary remedy and illustrates the potential for the Departments of Justice and Education to play a key role in reviving the quest for equal educational opportunity through desegregation.