Goss v. Board of Education of City of Knoxville, Tennessee

Citation10 L.Ed.2d 632,373 U.S. 683,83 S.Ct. 1405
Decision Date03 June 1963
Docket NumberNo. 217,217
PartiesJosephine GOSS et al., Petitioners, v. The BOARD OF EDUCATION OF the CITY OF KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE, et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Jack Greenberg, New York City, for petitioners.

Harlan Dodson, Nashville, Tenn., and S. Frank Fowler, Knoxville, Tenn., for respondents.

Burke Marshall, Washington, D.C., for the United States, as amicus curiae.

Jack Petree, Memphis, Tenn., for Board of Education of Memphis City Schools, as amicus curiae.

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari (371 U.S. 811, 83 S.Ct. 38, 9 L.Ed.2d 53) limited to the question whether petitioners, Negro school children seeking desegregation of the public school systems of Knoxville, Tennessee (the Goss case), and Davidson County, Tennessee, an area adjacent to Nashville (the Maxwell case), are deprived of rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The question centers around substantially similar transfer provisions incorporated in formal desegregation plans adopted by the respective local school boards pursuant to court orders. The claim is that the transfer programs are invalid because they are based solely on race and tend to perpetuate the pre-existing racially segregated school system. Under the overall desegregation plans presented to the trial courts, school districts would be rezoned without reference to race. However, by the terms of the transfer provisions, a student, upon request, would be permitted, solely on the basis of his own race and the racial composition of the school to which he has been assigned by virtue of rezoning, to transfer from such school, where he would be in the racial minority, back to his former segregated school where his race would be in the majority. The appropriate District Courts and the Court of Appeals approved the transfer plans. 301 F.2d 164, 301 F.2d 828. The transfer plans being based solely on racial factors which, under their terms, inevitably lead toward segregation of the students by race, we conclude that they run counter to the admonition of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294, 301, 75 S.Ct. 753, 756, 99 L.Ed. 1083 (1955), wherein the District Courts were directed to 'consider the adequacy of any plans' proposed by school authorities 'to effectuate a * * * racially nondiscriminatory school system.' Our conclusion here leads to a reversal of the judgments of the Court of Appeals to the extent they approve the transfer provisions of respondent boards in each of the cases. The only question with which we are here concerned relates solely to the transfer provisions, and we are not called upon either to discuss or to pass on the other provisions of the desegregation plans.1


These cases were brought by Negro public school pupils and their parents as class actions against the respective school authorities. They challenged, among other points in the desegregation plans not here relevant, the transfer provisions which permitted a pupil to transfer, upon request, from the zone of his residence to another school. The transfer plans are essentially the same, each containing, in addition to the provisions at issue here, general provisions providing for transfers on a showing of 'good cause.'2 The crucial provisions, however, present in somewhat the same form in each plan, is examplified by § 6 of the Knoxville plan:

'6. The following will be regarded as some of the valid conditions to support requests for transfer:

'a. When a white student would otherwise be required to attend a school previously serving colored students only;

'b. When a colored student would otherwise be required to attend a school previously serving white students only;

'c. When a student would otherwise be required to attend a school where the majority of students of that school or in his or her grade are of a different race.'

This provision is attacked as providing recial factors as valid conditions to support transfers which by design and operation would perpetuate racial segregation. It is also said that no showing is made that the transfer provisions are essential to effectuation of desegregation and that other procedures are available.


It is readily apparent that the transfer system proposed lends itself to perpetuation of segregation. Indeed, the provisions can work only toward that end. While transfer are available to those who choose to attend school where their race is in the majority, there is no provision whereby a student might transfer upon request to a school in which his race is in a minority, unless he qualifies for a 'good cause' transfer. As the Superintendent of Davidson County's schools agreed, the effect of the racial transfer plan was 'to permit to child (or his parents) to choose segregation outside of his zone but not to choose integration outside of his zone.' Here the right of transfer, which operates solely on the basis of a racial classification, is a one-way ticket leading to but one destination, i.e., the majority race of the transferee and continued segregation. This Court has decided that state-imposed separation in public schools is inherently unequal and results in discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954). Our task then is to decide whether these transfer provisions are likewise unconstitutional. In doing so, we note that if the transfer provisions were made available to all students regardless of their race and regardless as well of the racial composition of the school to which he requested transfer we would have an entirely different case. Pupils could then at their option (or that of their parents) choose, entirely free of any imposed racial considerations, to remain in the school of their zone or to transfer to another.


Classifications based on race for purposes of transfers between public schools, as here, violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As the Court said in Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., 323 U.S. 192, 203, 65 S.Ct. 226, 89 L.Ed. 173 (1944), racial classifications are 'obviously irrelevant and invidious.' The cases of this Court reflect a variety of instances in which racial classifications have been held to he invalid, e.g., public parks and playgrounds, Watson v. City of Memphis, 373 U.S. 526, 83 S.Ct. 1314 (1963); tres- pass convictions, where local segregation ordinances preempt private choice, Peterson v. City of Greenville, 373 U.S. 244, 83 S.Ct. 1119 (1963); seating in courtrooms, Johnson v. Virginia, 373 U.S. 61, 83 S.Ct. 1053 (1963); Restaurants in public buildings, Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715, 81 S.Ct. 856, 6 L.Ed.2d 45 (1961); bus terminals, Boynton v. Com. of Virginia, 364 U.S. 454, 81 S.Ct. 182, 5 L.Ed.2d...

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