1970 Lumpkin v. Dempsey: Activism in the Court

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Lumpkin v. Dempsey: Activism in the Court

Mae Willie Lumpkin during an interview in 2014 Source: Trinity College Digital Collection
Mae Willie Lumpkin during an interview in 2014
Source: Trinity College Digital Collection


          Most people who live in Connecticut are aware of the significance of Sheff v. O’Neill. However, one case that many do not know about is its predecessor, Lumpkin v. Dempsey, which was a major civic rights driven case filed in 1970. Some nineteen years before Sheff, this case provided the model for arguments against the effects of segregation. In the wake of what some consider the golden age of the civil rights movement, the late 1960s, this case extended the activist spirit to the courts in an effort to seize equality in public education. Although the plaintiffs’ case for desegregating schools and school districts was strong, the moral underpinnings of their arguments were radical relative to those in the statutes they were pitted against. Thus, the desegregation they hoped to achieve was not conducive to the extreme conservatism that was the norm of the time. Despite its failure, this case remains important for its activist assertions and spirit.

        The named party for the plaintiffs’ class action suit was Mae Willie Lumpkin, a mother of nine who resided in the North End of Hartford. 1 As a neighborhood native since the age of eight, she was keenly aware of the state of public education in Connecticut’s capital city. 2 More importantly, however, she was also aware of the state of education in the surrounding suburbs from friends of hers who had been able to move to the suburbs, and experience public education in those towns. 3

         At the time, Hartford, and Mrs. Lumpkin’s North End in particular, was a bastion of concentrated poverty. The impoverished conditions the Lumpkin family lived under were based on segregation of people of color, mainly African-American, to low-income housing opportunities in this section of the city. 4 A history of redlining and racism had placed people of color into a residential situation in which escape was extremely difficult. Housing prices in suburbs were much higher, and thus worked as a barrier to the mostly African-American and Latino, low-income earners in the central city of Hartford. The truly disenfranchising aspect of this concentration of poverty and historical segregation was the public school funding situation, which stipulated that public schools would be funded by the property taxes of their corresponding jurisdictions, and would thus serve those who lived in those areas. What resulted was the separation seen by Mrs. Lumpkin. The suburbs, which had an average of 5 percent minority enrollment, were investing much more into their public school systems than the central city, which had an average of 50 percent minority enrollment. 5 By this mechanism, low property values in the city left public schools highly under resourced in comparison to their suburban counterparts. Effectively, this led to a vast discrepancy in the quality of education.

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PHOTO: Maps of Hartford and its surrounding suburbs showing the correspondence between Hartford’s concentration of families below the poverty line (top) and it’s concentration of “black” residents (bottom). The corresponding colors show that both poverty, and a high concentration of “black” residents existed in Hartford SOURCE: Social Explorer

        The Lumpkin children noted that education quality was not just based on a direct relationship to money, but also to the type of environment and culture that poverty and poor education had fostered. The second youngest, and self-described “best looking” daughter, Kenyetta, remarked on her experience much the same way the other children did. There was an expectation of failure in the community and even among school faculty. She specifically recalled an incident in which a teacher told her, “most likely when you grow up you’re going to spend the rest of your life in jail.” 6 Resource starved communities that had only themselves to rely on had developed a very cynical outlook on life prospects that permeated the education system, and affected the desire to learn and achieve to a great extent. The youngest sibling, Terrance Lumpkin, echoed a similar notion while describing the level of internal conflict that occurred in the community. Students would fight to take each other’s bread money as a common occurrence. He said that this same strife showed itself in the classroom. To this point he stated, “the classrooms are a product of the community,” and would show that same level of strife, which would detract from the academic experience from within. 7

             A busing program called Project Concern was underway in an attempt to desegregate schools by busing Hartford students to schools in the suburbs. However, this was executed using a lottery system, so it did not reliably move an appreciable percentage of students to quality education institutions. Despite its poor effectiveness, Mrs. Lumpkin applied to the program with the hope that her children could attend school in the adjacent town of Manchester, which was often called “Klan-chester,” due to its extremely white population. The white concentration of the town correlated with its high property values and wealthy residents, which were indicative of the high quality public education that was available. In the year 1970, when the plaintiffs filed the case, an average of 30 percent of families in the North End of Hartford were below the poverty line, while this same statistic measured only 3 percent in Manchester. 8 The Lumpkins and their neighbors felt the effect of this discrepancy. Therefore, Mae Willie Lumpkin determined she needed to find a way to move her children into those resource-laden schools.


Percent Black

Poverty Levels
PHOTO: (top) This is meant to show the difference in the number of impoverished families (dark = more) in Hartford and in Manchester in 1970. || (bottom) This is meant to show the difference in the number of “black” residents (dark = more) between Hartford and Manchester. SOURCE: Social Explorer


            The opportunity to engage these problems was presented to her when she was invited to join a single mother’s club by a lady named Connie Johnson, a representative of the Hartford Public School system that had teamed with young lawyers to think of solutions to the problem of resource disadvantage. 9 Because of her interest in these subjects, she jumped at the chance. It was by this association that she would eventually find be identified as a key plaintiff for the class action lawsuit brought against the highest officials in Connecticut.

            At the time, Connecticut law provided for a great deal of local autonomy for cities and suburbs alike. In 1960, the abolition of the county system took effect, granting even more power to city and town officials. This also had the effect of turning cities and towns into functional city-states, and the presiding culture reinforced this style of local governance. State government officials, well aware of this culture of local autonomy, were strong in defending and reinforcing it as a gem of the state. Political rhetoric of the time expressed the strength of local government as being responsive to the residents of those towns, and in turn being the most appropriate level of government in which to serve the state as a whole. City and town governments would be a legitimate system by the people, for the people, and would thus serve their interests. 10For towns that had enough resources among their population, this was a highly effective system, and it served many suburbs well. Some would even go on to create public education systems that would rival private institutions in terms of education quality. This was the normative idea that would buttress the case for the defense in Lumpkin, and it proved to be the greatest enemy to the Lumpkin family and families like them.

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PHOTO: Image of the State’s Defense Memo motioning for the joinder of named suburbs as parties in the defense. SOURCE: Trinity College Digital Collection


            The State of Connecticut would leverage this traditional view of governance at every turn in their defense from the accusations of plaintiffs. In building the legal coalition that would be placed in court, the defense vigorously stated that the legal proceedings would be fundamentally flawed if even one of the suburbs named as part of the solution by the plaintiffs were not granted an opportunity to take part in the case. Counsel for the defense posited that Connecticut state laws, which afforded such a high bar of autonomy cities and towns, would be broken if they were not given this opportunity. Citizens, and especially children of these towns had done nothing legally wrong, and thus should only bear the burdens that may possibly result from the case if they had a chance to defend themselves. 11 Their particular argument was analogous to the autonomy demanded in the phrase “no taxation without representation,” and was used in an attempt to preserve the amassed wealth and benefits that resulted from privileged history and present.

            Unfortunately, for cities like Hartford, the residents of which had been subjected to decades of racist de jure and de facto corralling into concentrated poverty under the masquerade of housing choice, this afforded autonomy was not so fortunate. In Hartford, autonomy did not mean the ability to serve one’s community in abundance, but instead meant the inability to access abundant resources. They were, in effect, locked out.

            In response to this, Douglas Crockett, a young, unseasoned attorney would come to lead the class action suit for the plaintiffs. 12 The organization he worked for, Neighborhood Legal Services Program saw the cause of segregation as “the fact that the school district lines were coterminous with the town boundary lines.” 13 Knowing the history of redlining and blocking out based on race and socio-economic background, which he noted were essentially contiguous terms, these boundaries were the vestiges of a government that could be held responsible for their maintenance.

            With the help of revered organizations like Boston’s Center for Law and Education, and the NAACP’s Inc. Fund and law team, Crockett sought to argue for the court to order the state reform the public education system so broadly that they would create a completely new school district infrastructure. 14 To support this, they cited the only laws that could trump those of the state. By applying the concept of the 14th Amendment to this case, the plaintiff counsel was able to supersede the provisions of the state’s laws with the dominance of Federal statutes. Namely, that of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which forbids states from enforcing any legislation that functions to deny anyone equal opportunity under the law. 15 Even more so was the precedent they set for testing this type of protection, which they claimed to be one of “effect.” This “effect” test legitimized all of the data they had found in terms of income disparities and the correlating education results disparities between the city and its named suburbs.

              To add, the plaintiffs asserted that “the fundamental guarantee of equal treatment at the hands of the State cannot be thwarted by the fragmentation of decision making.” 16 This, they posited, was a result of the supremacy of Federal law over local stipulations or even state law. Thus, by framing the issue as one of civil rights at the highest level of the definition, namely equal protection under the law, counsel was able to place blame on the state’s flawed policies.

              In a case-defining final argument, the plaintiffs’ case also implicated the surrounding suburbs of Windsor, South Windsor, Bloomfield, Newington, Glastonbury, Wethersfield, East Hartford, West Hartford, Rocky Hill, Farmington, Plainville, Avon, and Manchester. 17 In order to do this, they relied on the fact that appropriate, legitimate desegregation efforts, which the state had charged itself with in Sections 10-4, 10-4a, and 10-4b of the Connecticut General Statutes, could not be statistically achieved in Hartford, or any other town, without the involvement of surrounding suburbs. 18

             This case was advancing through the court system toward trial with strength, and was garnering a lot of attention. All at once, however, it was tragically derailed by a decision in the case of Bradley v. Milliken in Detroit, Michigan. This case, being tried in the Supreme Court, was of a nearly identical model to Lumpkin, and its passage through lower courts had served as the basis for much of the argument given by the plaintiffs. Unfortunately, in 1974, the Supreme Court held that despite the effects of white flight to suburbs, and the resulting concentrated poverty in the inner city, the suburbs could not be held accountable for education discrepancies on the basis of race, unless it could be proven that education officials in suburbs were actively discriminating against students from other cities or towns. 19 The precedent set in Milliken infamously halted the proceedings of the Lumpkin case, as it established a precedent that would not place the suburbs at fault, thereby sinking the class action suit that the Mae Willie Lumpkin and so many other Hartford residents found hope in.

             The failure of this case also flew in the face of the moral underpinnings of the Lumpkin case. Where the defense saw legal precedents and autonomous living to be in the right, the plaintiffs saw a necessity for involving oneself in the lives of others with the obligation to be a force for positive change among oppressed, deprived people. It served to reinforce the acceptability of racism, segregation, concentrated poverty, and the grotesque effect on school children that came from these phenomena.

              While it may seem pointless, this case was still incredibly important. Many years later, the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O’Neill would point to this case as an inspiration and a model for their own assault on the same societal flaws. More importantly, however, this case should be remembered for its assertion of social justice. What this case lacked as a legal loss, it made up for as an activist demonstration. While the case lasted for four years, the Lumpkin children remarked that they took their mother’s fighting spirit into life with them, even though they did not know of the case as children. Lumpkin v. Dempsey stands as a symbol of the desire for justice, and the determination to strive for it.

PHOTO: Mae Willie Lumpkin (front) and Elizabeth Horton Sheff (second from the right) at a Lumpkin family event in October 2014 SOURCE: Gina Chirichingo

Works Cited

Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut October 2,1973).

Chirichingo, Gina. Mae Willie Lumpkin at a Lumpkin Family Gathering. 2014. Hartford.

Crockett, Douglas, and Raymond Marcin. “Lumpkin Et Al. v. Dempsey Et Al. Complaint.” Lumpkin Et Al. v. Dempsey Et Al. Complaint., 1970.

Mae Willie Lumpkin and Family, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation Case (2014). Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Mae Willie Lumpkin, Kenyetta Lumpkin, and Terrance Lumpkin.

Douglas Crockett, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation. Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Douglas Crockett. Trinity College Digital Collections, November 17, 2014.

Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut November 10, 1972). Reply Brief of Defendants (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut August 25, 1972).

Trinity College. “US Demography 1790 to Present.” Social Explorer. 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016. https://www.socialexplorer.com/6f4cdab7a0/explore.



  1. Mae Willie Lumpkin and Family, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation Case (2014). Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Mae Willie Lumpkin, Kenyetta Lumpkin, and Terrance Lumpkin.
  2. Mae Willie Lumpkin
  3. Mae Willie Lumpkin
  4. Trinity College. “US Demography 1790 to Present.” Social Explorer. 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016. https://www.socialexplorer.com/6f4cdab7a0/explore.
  5. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut November 10, 1972).
  6. Kenyetta Lumpkin
  7. Terrance Lumpkin
  8. Social Explorer
  9. Mae Willie Lumpkin
  10. Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant (United States District Court for the District of Connecticut October 2, 1973).
  11. Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant
  12. Douglas Crockett, Oral History Interview on 1970s Lumpkin School Desegregation. Directed by Jack Dougherty. Performed by Douglas Crockett. Trinity College Digital Collections, 2014. November 17, 2014.
  13. Douglas Crockett
  14. Douglas Crockett
  15. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish
  16. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish
  17. Brief in Support of Defendant State Officials’ Further Motion to Order the Joinder of Persons as Parties Defendant
  18. Memorandum Outline on the Proof Plaintiffs Will Establish
  19. Douglas Crockett