No one--not the celebrating black families, not the enraged white Southerners and Midwesterners, not the curious onlookers in the Northeast and the West--would have guessed the way race relations in America would evolve a half-century later. For 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," the most integrated schools in the U.S. are in the South. The most segregated are in New York and California. The federal courts--once the preferred tool of integrationists-- have become a major force in the resegregation of schools. And the formerly black-and-white issue of racial integration is more intricate--last year Latinos became the country's largest minority group.
"The promise of Brown was not fulfilled in the way that we envisioned it," says U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who was a student at Mississippi's all-black Jackson State University when the decision was handed down. Within the first few years after the decision, paratroopers were protecting black students entering Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., schools were shuttered entirely in Prince Edward County, Va., and white families across the South put their children into private schools. By 1971, the court had endorsed busing to overcome the residential segregation that was keeping black and white children apart. Particularly in the South, the integration drive worked, as the share of black children attending majority white schools rose from 0.1% in 1960 to a high of 44% in 1988.
But a series of court decisions in the early to mid-1990s reversed the trend. The courts found that school systems had complied with their obligations to desegregate, and many communities abandoned their busing plans. Today the share of black students in majority white schools in the South is 30%, about the same percentage as in 1970. Even in communities that are well integrated, barriers still exist within the school walls themselves. While 72% of white students graduate from high school on schedule, just over half of black and Hispanic students do. White fourth-graders are more than three times as likely to read proficiently as black fourth-graders. "The WHITE and COLORED signs did come down," says Derrick Bell, New York University law professor and author of Silent Covenants, a book on the unfulfilled hopes of Brown. "But the idea that putting black kids together with whites would solve our problems was naive in the extreme."
The Brown decision was actually a ruling on a combination of cases in four communities--Topeka; Clarendon County, S.C.; Prince Edward County, Va.; and Wilmington, Del. (Another school desegregation case, in Washington, was decided separately that same day.) TIME revisited each of the four for this anniversary, finding in some places deep disappointments and in others astounding gains. --By Rebecca Winters