This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Strange Career of Birdie Mae Davis: A History of a School Desegregation Lawsuit in Mobile, Alabama, 1963 - 1997




Brian, Duke

Type of Degree





The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling helped transform America as it responded to the process of school desegregation. However, school desegregation remained a complex endeavor, based on changes in the law, Supreme Court rulings and public opinion. This thesis provides an in-depth study of one district, the Mobile County Public Schools System in Alabama, and one desegregation suit, the Birdie Mae Davis case to understand how a school board complied with desegregation mandates and resolved a desegregation case. The goal is to understand what desegregation meant to a community, how that community shaped desegregation, and what larger conclusions about race relations in the United States can be drawn from such a study. Filed in 1963, the Birdie Mae Davis case remained active until its dismissal in 1997. This thesis relies heavily on newspapers and the court records of the case, along with interviews conducted by the author. Based on this research, I conclude that little support existed desegregation plans requiring mandatory student reassignment, such as busing students for the sole purpose of racial balance. Instead, both white and black parents preferred neighborhood schools, though from different motivations and for different reasons. In particular, the development of magnet schools allowed for voluntary desegregation after decades of forced desegregation failed to eliminate one-race schools. However, successful compliance with federal school desegregation orders did not mean that all members of the community view desegregation as a success. While school desegregation may have ended de jure segregation, the prevalence of housing, or de facto segregation perpetuated racial isolation in schools. While the Brown decision, successive rulings of the Supreme Court, the Civil Rights Movement, and federal legislation have made a tremendous impact in improving access to institutions for African American citizens, evidence demonstrates that educational achievement gaps remain between blacks and whites. Moreover, the black and white communities continued to disagree on several issues demonstrating the complexities of southern race relations in the late twentieth century.