Statement by Assistant Attorney General Ralph E. Odum at U.S. Senate Hearing Concerning Constitutionality of Civil Rights Laws: The History of the Legislation that Proved this Statement Wrong

Authored by Aleah Parsons

This document is a statement made by Assistant Attorney General of Florida Ralph E. Odum at a Senate Hearing discussing the constitutionality of civil rights legislation. A large part of the discussed legislation were laws that would allow the federal government to force school integration.

On May 14, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the court case Brown v. Board of Education that segregation within schools was unconstitutional according to the 14th amendment (United States Courts, n.d.).

After much discussion with all the United States Attorney Generals, it was determined by the Supreme court that school desegregation was to be administered by federal state district courts and that it was to begin immediately following the court’s ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education Topeka court case (Tomberlin 1974 ; United States Courts, n.d., under “Brown v. Board of Education (1954-1955).

Despite the court’s ruling many states resisted desegregation within their schools. In 1958 for example Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used the ruling of federal district courts to end school desegregation.  The federal district courts decision, however, was overruled by the Supreme Court. Like Arkansas, Florida and Texas passed laws that authorized for public schools to be shut down when federal troops were called on campus to assist in school desegregation (Drone 2005).

Realizing that school integration was progressing slowly the federal government began considering legislation that would allow state attorney generals to sue local officials along with anyone else refusing to comply with school integration laws (Odum 1959).

Assistant Attorney Robert E. Odum argued against this legislation in a statement he made at a U.S Senate hearing debating the constitutionality of civil rights legislation. Odum argued that passing laws was not the answer to enacting school integration or any civil rights for African Americans claiming “…racial tolerance and social acceptance must necessarily be freely given and graciously received. They result from the efforts of the humanitarian, not of penal codes” (Odum 1959, 15).

Odum used Oklahoma as an example of a state that had successfully integrated its schools without assistance from the federal government (Odum 1959). Oklahoma did successfully desegregate its schools when the decision in Brown v. Board of Education Topeka was passed, however in 1958 there were still separate school systems for African American and white American students in southeastern Oklahoma (Billington 1964).

Contrary to Assistant Attorney General Ralph E. Odom’s belief that laws would not aide in accomplishing school integration the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which barred school segregation and threatened to cut public funding to schools refusing desegregation caused the school integration rate across the United States “to rise 32% in 1968-1969 and 91.3% in 1972-1973” (Klarman 1994, 10).

Integrated schools took a long time to achieve, and racial inequality is still a huge issue within this country today. However, schools such as St. John’s University in its mission to “provide excellent education for all people, especially those lacking economic, physical, or social advantages (St. Johns, 2015) reminds us how far we have come in our fight for equal education. This progress gives us the hope we need to continue fighting for racial equality.


Billington, Monroe. 1964. “Public School Integration in Oklahoma, 1954-1963.” The Historian 26 (4): 521–37.

Drone, Janell. 2005. “Desegregation and Effective School Leadership: Tracking Success, 1954-1980.” The Journal of African American History 90 (4): 410-21.

Klarman, Michael J. 1994. “Brown, Racial Change, and the Civil Rights Movement.” Virginia Law Review 80 (1) : 7-150.

Odum, Ralph w. 1959. “Statement at a Hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights Regarding Civil Rights Legislation.” Series 776, box 116, folder 13, . State Archives of Florida.

St. John’s University. 2015. “Our Mission.” St. John’s University. Last modified October 2015.

Tomberlin, Joseph A. 1974. “Florida and the School Desegregation Issue, 1954-1959: A Summary View.” The Journal of Negro Education 43 (4): 457–67.

 Federal Judiciary. n.d. “Brown v. Board of Education” in History- Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment, ed. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Accessed March 9, 2021.