A Future NFL Player, a Preschool and the Supreme Court Case That Changed History

Long before he made his first tackle, Michael McCrary was at the center of a civil rights case that went to the highest court.

Illustration by Alice Kresse

It was 1972 and Navy Department employee Sandy McCrary was looking to enroll her 2-year-old son, Michael, in nursery school. Seeing an ad in the Yellow Pages for Bobbe’s Private School in Arlington, she called to ask the usual mom questions about meals, naptime and toilet training. Then came the question she knew might pose a problem: “You are integrated, aren’t you?” The answer was no. “You mean you don’t accept black children?”

The response was even more emphatic: “Never have and we never will.”

Sandy and her husband, Curtis, joined another family in filing a class action lawsuit against the school and its proprietors, Russell and Katheryne Runyon, claiming victory in Arlington County federal district court and, again, in federal appellate court. In April 1976, the case of Runyon v. McCrary landed at the bench of the United States Supreme Court.

By then, 17 years had passed since Arlington’s Stratford Junior High became one of the first public schools in Virginia to integrate. And yet, the issue of school desegregation in Arlington was hardly resolved. Several local elementary schools had remained essentially segregated (due to their locations in historically black neighborhoods) until the county school board in 1971 proposed to start busing black students to primarily white schools in other parts of the county. Black parents protested, arguing that long commutes to unfamiliar schools, where the “indignities of segregation” were still fresh, would place their kids at a disadvantage. But the courts upheld the school board’s plan in May 1972—just one month before Michael McCrary was denied admission to a private nursery school based on his race.

Though somewhat obscure, Runyon v. McCrary would become one of the more influential civil rights cases in history. Specifically, says Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at George Washington University, the case covers an aspect of civil liberties that the 14th Amendment (which forbids states from denying any person “the equal protection of the laws”) largely ignores.

“We tend to think of the 14th Amendment…as addressing discrimination on the basis of race in general,” Berman explains. “But [it] says that ‘no state shall.’ So, the amendment, generally speaking, only applies to governmental entities, not private entities.”

The Supreme Court deliberated the case and determined, by a 7-2 decision, that the private nursery school had violated the McCrarys’ constitutional rights by denying their son admission. Delivering the consenting opinion, Justice Potter Stewart wrote that it was a “classic violation” of rights afforded by the Constitution and that while “parents have a right to send their children to schools that promote the belief that racial segregation is desirable,” the schools are not entitled to constitutional protections.

The McCrarys would later stipulate that they were simply trying to deal with one unjust situation and that they were not out to make history. But that’s exactly what they did.

Meanwhile, little Michael McCrary grew up to be a big football player. After graduating from George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, he went on to have an All-Pro NFL career, playing 10 seasons for Seattle and Baltimore (where he won a Super Bowl) as a defensive end, known for taking down opposing quarterbacks with determined perseverance. He probably learned that from his mother.


Related Stories

Categories: Local History
Leave a Reply