Minneapolis Public Schools’ Desegregation/Integration Litigation, 1978-1983

As described in a prior post, from 1971 through 1977, the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) were subject to an order to desegregate/integrate its schools and to semiannual court and, therefore, public scrutiny of its compliance with that order. This was an order by Minnesota’s U.S. District Court. (To the left is a photo of the Minneapolis Federal Office Building and U.S. Courthouse, 100 4th Street South, that was the site of this entire litigation. Today it is the Hennepin County Family Justice Center.)

In or about 1978 the MPS School Board, frustrated by the continued bad publicity generated by the case,  decided to hire me as its outside attorney for the case with the objective of having the court end the litigation on the ground that the MPS had done everything that a federal court legitimately could require it to do.[1]

The first such effort was unsuccessful.

In early 1978 I filed a MPS motion to terminate the litigation that was based on the then recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dayton v. Brinkman, 433 U.S. 406 (1977) that held the permissible court injunction in the Dayton, Ohio school desegregation case was limited to eliminating the “incremental segregative effect” of its constitutional violations.

The Minnesota court, however, distinguished the Dayton case and denied the MPS motion on the ground that it had not yet fully implemented its desegregation/integration plan. The court also rejected a MPS proposal to address concerns of the Native American community that will be explored in a subsequent post. [2]

In addition, the court in its May 1978 order rejected the MPS request to increase the allowable maximum minority enrollment in each school to 50% and to eliminate the single minority ceiling requirement. The court did say it had “never regarded the percentage figures [in its orders] as rigid requirements” and that it had set the percentage “guidelines at approximately 20% above the projected total minority student population.” The court then went on to modify its injunction to increase the maximum total minority student of each school to 46% (an increase of 4%) and a single minority’s maximum percentage to 39%(also an increase of 4%).

The MPS then took its only appeal in the 12 years of this litigation. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that that the district court had not abused its discretion in denying the motion to terminate the case. The appellate court, therefore, affirmed the district court’s decision[3]

The MPS then made its only application to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Two of the petition’s three arguments for such review were that the decisions in the lower courts conflicted with, and misapplied (1) the Supreme Court’s holding that desegregation decrees must be limited to eliminating incremental segregative effect of constitutional violations; and (2) that Court’s allowing modification of desegregation decrees where new circumstances of law or fact had arisen.[4]

The Supreme Court, however, refused to do so.[5]

The second and third efforts to end the case also were unsuccessful.[6]

The fourth motion to terminate the injunction and end the case, however, was granted by Judge Larson on June 8, 1983.[7] The court did so despite opposition by the plaintiffs, who later decided through their attorney, Charles Quaintance, Jr., not to seek a rehearing in the district court or an appeal to the Eighth Circuit.[8]

Dr. Richard Green

Afterwards the MPS Superintendent Richard Green said the decision was “a major moment in the history of the district” and that the MPS would “continue to work with the state department of education [with respect to its desegregation regulations] to show the good faith that was demonstrated by the court.” Green also said the court order had “created a climate for change in the school system that led to better-quality schools.” He specifically mentioned the change from neighborhood schools to ones that drew students from many parts of the city; the increase in student busing; and the creation of alternative programs, including “magnet” schools.[9]

Dr. Green wrote a personal note to me about the end of the litigation. He said, “Without question, the Minneapolis community has now met one of the major tests for equality, and my sense is that your leadership has been a crucial factor.”[10]

I certainly appreciated that kind compliment even though I thought it was unjustified. The successful desegregation/integration of the MPS was due to the efforts of many students, parents, teachers and administrators and of the School Board. The leadership of Dr. Green was the crucial ingredient, and his skills were recognized in 1988 when he became the Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, the first African-American to hold that position.

I was very saddened when Dr. Green died of asthma in 1989 at the age of 53 after only 14 months as Chancellor.[11] He was honored by a memorial service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan with a eulogy by then New York City Mayor Edward Koch.

Being the lawyer for the MPS in this litigation obviously was an important professional and civic responsibility and challenge. The MPS was committed to desegregation/integration and to respect for the law and the court’s orders, and yet it wanted to terminate the case. I personally shared these values and commitments and drew inspiration from these words of Learned Hand, one of the preeminent jurists in U.S. history:

  • “[A] society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone, no court can save; . . . a society where that sprit flourishes, no court need save; . . . in a society which evades its responsibility by thrusting upon the courts the nuture of that spirit, that spirit in the end will perish. What is the spirit of moderation? It is the temper which does not press a partisan advantage to its bitter end, which can understand and will respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens . . . which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations–in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual. . . . [Such a temper and such a faith] are the last flowers of civilization, delicate and easily overrun by the weeds of our sinful human nature . . . . [They] must have the vigor within themselves to withstand the winds and weather of an indifferent and ruthless world; and that it is idle to seek shelter for them in a courtroom. Men must take that temper and that faith with them into the field, into the market-place, into the factory, into the council-room, into their homes; they cannot be imposed; they must be lived. Words will not express them; arguments will not clarify them; decisions will not maintain them. They are the fruit of the wisdom that comes of trial and a pure heart; no one can possess them who has not stood in awe of this mysterious Universe; no one can possess them whom that spectacle has not purged through pity and through fear–pity for the pride and folly which inexorably enmesh men in toils of their own contriving; fear, because that same pride and that same folly lie deep in the recesses of his own soul.”[12]

[1] I have donated my papers relating to this case to the Minnesota Historical Society Libray, St. Paul, Minnesota.

[2] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 451 F. Supp. 659 (D. Minn. 1978). Four months later, in another case In which I represented the MPS, the same district court granted judgment for the MPS in a challenge to the constitutionality of the MPS decision to close Longfellow School in the southern part of the city. (Hernandez v. Special School Dist. No. 1, No, 4-78-349 (D. Minn. Sept. 13, 1978).)

[3] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 585 F.2d 347 (8th Cir. 1978).

[4] Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Special School District No. 1 v. Booker (No. 78-__ Sup. Ct. Nov. 10, 1978). The third reason for review relating to the issues regarding Native Americans that will be reviewed in a subsequent post.

[5] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 433 U.S. 915 (1979).

[6]  Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. May 1, 1980); Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. June 22, 1982). On December 17, 1982 after a semiannual MPS report had been submitted to the court, the MPS Superintendent Richard R. Green sent me a note thanking me on behalf of “the entire School District and community” for my “contribution” in helping the MPS to report total compliance with the court order.

[7] Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. June 8, 1983).

[8]  During the five years of my representation of the MPS in this case, Quaintance and I were professional adversaries without any other relationship. In recent years, however, as fellow members of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, we have become friends.

[9] Paulu, Judge Larson ends court jurisdiction in city public schools’ desegregation, Mpls. Star & Trib. (June 9, 1983); Pinney, Case kept desegregation effort aimed toward stability, Mpls. Star & Trib. (June 9, 1983).

[10] Letter, Dr. Richard R. Green to Duane Krohnke (June 16, 1983).

[11] A park in Brooklyn, New York was named in his honor.

[12] Learned Hand, The Sprit of Liberty, at 164-65 (3d ed.; Univ. Chicago Press; Chicago 1977).

Minneapolis Public Schools Desegregation/Integration Litigation, 1971-1977

Dr. John b. Davis, Jr.

In the winter of 1970-71 under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. John B. Davis, Jr.,[1] the School Board of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) decided, 6 to 1, to adopt a general commitment to racial desegregation and its first mandatory desegregation step: the pairing of Field and Hale Elementary Schools on the south side of the city.[2]

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and some citizens, however, were concerned about the long-term commitment to this effort and the possible election of a school board that would be opposed to such measures. Therefore,  in August 1971 the NAACP and others started a federal lawsuit alleging the racial imbalance in the schools was due to intentional acts of the MPS.

Judge Earl Larson

The case went to trial in April 1972 before U.S. District Judge Earl Larson of Minnesota’s federal district court, and on the last day of the trial (April 25, 1972) the School Board adopted a widespread Desegregation/Integration Plan.

A month later (May 24, 1972), the court decided that the MPS were segregated on the basis of race and that such segregation resulted from the following intentional acts of the MPS: (1) the construction,  size and location of Bethune School ; (2) the addition of seven new classrooms to Field Elementary School in 1964; (3) the 1967 construction of an addition to Washburn High School; (4) the location of portable classrooms; (5) decisions over school size; (6) the 1968 change in boundaries between Washburn and Southwest High Schools; (7)  the policy of allowing special transfers of students;(8) the creation of optional attendance zones along the perimeters of racial minority neighborhoods; and (9) the practice of assigning and transferring teachers and administrators.[iii]

The court, therefore, concluded that the MPS had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and permanently enjoined  the MPS, “its school board, its administrators, its employees, its agents, and all those who are in active concert or participation with them . . . from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin” in its operation.

The court further ordered MPS to “take affirmative action to disestablish school segregation and eliminate the effects of its prior unlawful activities.” More specifically the court ordered MPS to implement its own Plan for Desegregation/Integration with the following modifications: (a) no more than 35% of the study body of any one school could be minority children; (b) increase faculty integration; (c) not allow any student transfers that increase the segregated nature of either school; (d) submission of any plans for new schools or additions to old schools to the court for prior approval; and (e) submission of any changes to the Desegregation/Integration Plan to the court for prior approval.

Finally to monitor MPS’ compliance with the court order, the MPS was required to submit semi-annual reports to plaintiff’s’ counsel and to the court.

In May 1975 the court modified the injunction to change the maximum permissible minority enrollment in any school to 42% total minority and 35% of any single minority group.[4]

In July 1977 the court found that MPS had fully complied with the injunction except for racial balance at several schools, but it denied the MPS motion to terminate the case.

The litigation continued until June 1983, and the latter phase of the litigation (1978-1983) will be covered in a subsequent post.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer was Charles Quaintance, Jr. The defendants were represented by Norman Newhall and Gerald Bergfalk.

My family and I had moved to Minneapolis in the Spring of 1970, and I had no involvement as an attorney in the early phase of this case.

In 1971, however, as a citizen and as a parent of two sons who would be going to the MPS, I was shocked to read that the two new members of the city’s School Board were opposed to further desegregation/integration, and at least one of them in campaigning had talked about resisting any federal court order. As a result, over the next seven years I became very active in various activities relating to the public schools in Minneapolis and elsewhere in Minnesota.

In the next local election in 1973 I was very active in Citizens United for Responsible Education (CURE), a successful bipartisan coalition to elect two moderate candidates to the School Board. I went on to become active in other public education projects: Member of the Citizens League Study Committee on Fluctuating School Enrollments; Member (by gubernatorial appointment) of the State of Minnesota Commission on Fluctuating School Enrollments; Member of the Board of Directors of the Minneapolis Citizens Committee on Public Education; unsuccessful candidate for appointment to fill a vacancy on the Minneapolis School Board; and Chairman of the MPS Citizens’ Advisory Committee on School Finance.

This civic experience would turn out to be very useful for me in the next phase of the litigation.


[1] Davis subsequently became the President of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

[2] Pinney, Case kept desegregation effort aimed toward stability, Mpls. Star & Trib. (June 9, 1983).

[iii] Booker v. Special School District No. 1, 351 F. Supp. 799 (D. Minn. 1972).

[4] Memo Order, Booker v. Special School District No. 1, (D. Minn. May 7, 1975).