Civil Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate: Student Protest and the Struggle for Racial Reform
Kathryn Schumaker

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Oklahoma

Primary Discipline

Civil Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate: Student Protest and the Struggle for Racial Reform” examines how African American students across the nation challenged racial discrimination at school and how the consequences of the litigation they initiated shaped students’ rights between 1965 and 1975. The participation of black students in the Black Freedom Struggle thrust them into a precarious situation. What rights did these young people have at school? This project is the first to consider how civil rights activism at school was related to the emergence of a new regime of students’ rights in American law. The importance of discipline is implicit in this approach to understanding civil rights at school, as protesting students were frequently suspended or expelled as a result of their actions. Ultimately, the project reveals that while the litigation resulting from students’ lawsuits expanded the judicial recognition of all public school students’ rights, the courts protected the rights of students who were perceived as being orderly over those seen as disorderly. The distinction between “orderly” students and “disorderly” ones had a devastating effect on the ability of African American students—especially young men—to challenge their exclusion from school. Paradoxically, as students’ constitutional rights became established in law, African American students experienced an erosion of their civil rights in an era marked by desegregation and law and order politics.The project begins with three case studies, which examine student protest and legal change before and after the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that First Amendment free speech protections extended to young people in public schools. The first case study covers two key precedents to the Tinker case that emerged from voter registration efforts in Mississippi in which the Fifth Circuit established order as the principle governing students’ rights at school. The second study explores the tensions between African American and Chicano Movement challenges to discrimination at school in Denver that undergirded the 1973 Keyes v. Denver case. The third case study examines the 1975 Goss v. Lopez case, in which student protest in Columbus, Ohio, led to the establishment of students’ due process rights. The final two chapters examine the political, cultural, and legal effects and meanings of these rulings in the late 1960s and 1970s, and they identify how and why order and disorder became central concepts to the protection of students’ rights during this era. These chapters also explore how educators, academics, and child advocacy organizations sought to challenge the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of children of color as they worked to make American education more equitable.
About Kathryn Schumaker
Kathryn Schumaker is a historian of the twentieth century United States with specializations in legal and African American history. She is currently an assistant professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma and a core faculty member in the Constitutional Studies program. Schumaker teaches courses on civil rights, gender, and constitutional change in modern America. She has previously published two articles on the implementation of civil rights reforms in Midwestern public schools during the era of school desegregation. Her current book project focuses on the development of students’ constitutional and civil rights between 1965 and 1975. Before attending graduate school, Schumaker taught language arts and social studies in a Baltimore public middle school. She received her PhD in History from the University of Chicago in 2013.

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