Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia

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In Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia, 407 U.S. 451 (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a district court's injunction against a city which prevented it from creating a new school district, on the grounds that the new school district would interfere with desegregation of the schools.

Justice Potter Stewart wrote the opinion for the 5-4 Court, with Chief Justice Warren Burger writing a dissent that was joined by Justices Harry Blackmun, William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell.

In words of Justice Stewart employing terminology widely used then but almost never heard today, he wrote for the Court:[1]

This lawsuit began in 1965, when a complaint was filed on behalf of Negro children seeking an end to state-enforced racial segregation in the Greensville County school system. Prior to 1965, the elementary and high schools located in Emporia served all white children in the county, while Negro children throughout the county were assigned to a single high school or one of four elementary schools, all but one of which were located outside the Emporia town boundary. In January 1966, the District Court approved a so-called "freedom of choice" plan that had been adopted by the county in April of the previous year. Wright v. School Board of Greensville County, 252 F.Supp. 378. No white students ever attended the Negro schools under this plan, and in the 1968-1969 school year only 98 of the county's 2,510 Negro students attended white schools. The school faculties remained completely segregated.
Following our decision in Green v. County School Board, 391 U.S. 430, holding that a freedom-of-choice plan was an unacceptable method of desegregation where it failed "to provide meaningful assurance of prompt and effective disestablishment of a dual system," id., at 438, the petitioners filed a motion for further relief. The District Court ordered the county to demonstrate its compliance with the holding in Green, or to submit a plan designed to bring the schools into compliance. After various delays, during which the freedom-of-choice system remained in effect, the county submitted two alternative plans. The first would have preserved the existing system with slight modifications, and the second would have assigned students to schools on the basis of curricular choices or standardized test scores. The District Court promptly rejected the first of these proposals, and took the second under advisement. Meanwhile, the petitioners submitted their own proposal, under which all children enrolled in a particular grade level would be assigned to the same school, thus eliminating any possibility of racial bias in pupil assignments. Following an evidentiary hearing on June 23, 1969, the District Court rejected the county's alternative plan, finding that it would "substitute ... one segregated school system for another segregated school system." By an order dated June 25, the court ordered the county to implement the plan submitted by the petitioners, referred to by the parties as the "pairing" plan, as of the start of the 1969-1970 school year.
Two weeks after the District Court entered its decree, the Emporia City Council sent a letter to the county Board of Supervisors announcing the city's intention to operate a separate school system beginning in September. The letter stated that an "in-depth study and analysis of the directed school arrangement reflects a totally unacceptable situation to the Citizens and City Council of the City of Emporia." It asked that the 1968 city-county agreement be terminated by mutual consent, and that title to school property located within Emporia be transferred to the city. The letter further advised that children residing in the county would be permitted to enroll in the city schools on a tuition basis. At no time during this period did the city officials meet with the county council or school board to discuss the implementation of the pairing decree, nor did they inform the District Court of their intentions with respect to the separate school system.

This precedent is often cited today for its statement that "[d]irect control over decisions vitally affecting the education of one's children is a need that is strongly felt in our society."[2]


  1. 407 U.S. at 455-56 (footnoted omitted).
  2. 407 U.S. at 469.