On a typically steamy Alabama summer day in 1970, a three-judge federal panel that had convened in Montgomery reluctantly ordered rural Sumter County, a farming community some 133 miles west in the Black Belt, to desegregate its schools immediately.
“Each member of this court is acutely aware of the customs and traditions of the people of this section of our country,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Rives, and U.S. District Judges Frank M. Johnson Jr. and H.H. Grooms wrote in their ruling, according to a United Press International wire service report. “We enter this order in this case with the full realization that [ . . .] the student body in the Sumter County school system will, in all probability, be composed of only Negro students.”
Total desegregation — not a process of gradual integration that would keep open some all-black schools, as Sumter County had proposed — was the only way to comply with the Department of Justice’s mandates, the judges wrote. But, they warned, it would only lead to white flight.