The federal government was not a party to all of these cases, many of which originated with civil rights organizations. In some instances, these agencies, too, have not closely monitored districts' progress.
The desegregation order for St. Martin Parish in Louisiana sat idle for more than 30 years. In 2010, a federal judge who was cleaning up his roster of old desegregation cases determined the order had ended in 1976.
But the judge soon heard from the Justice Department, which insisted that the order was operative and necessary. The St. Martin Parish school board disagreed.
"The Clerk of Court in Shreveport couldn't even find all of the records," said Jack Burson, the board's attorney. "I've been in law practice for 49 years, and I've never seen a silent case sort of resurrect."
For now, the order remains active. The parties are waiting for an appellate-court ruling.
Brian K. Landsberg, a law professor at The University of the Pacific, who worked as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer in the late '60s, said he was dismayed by the lack of action.
"This is not the way it's supposed to work," Landsberg said. "It is the job of both the school district and the civil rights division to monitor these cases. There is an obligation of the law enforcement agencies to enforce these orders."
Fred Gray was once a driving force behind the effective use of federal desegregation orders.
Sitting in his Tuskegee, Alabama, law office—located along the dilapidated downtown circle that bears his name—Gray, 83, recently explained how as a child he had made a secret vow to become a lawyer and to then "destroy everything segregated" in his state.
At the time, no Alabama law school admitted black students, so Gray headed north to Ohio to earn his degree. Then, in 1955, at age 24, he took his first case, that of a teenager named Claudette Colvin who had challenged Alabama's segregated buses months before Rosa Parks. Gray went on to represent Parks, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped to banish segregation on buses and to ensure voting and other rights for black Americans.
But the fight for fair and integrated schools proved longer and harder, much to the consternation of black parents eager for their children to realize the promise of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court struck down the doctrine of separate but equal schools. By 1963, for example, Alabama schools remained utterly segregated.
That year, Gray sued the Macon County Board of Education. The case wound up before U.S. District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson, Jr. His rulings in favor of civil rights had led to death threats, cross burnings on his lawn, and the firebombing of his mother's home.
Not surprisingly, Johnson ordered Macon County schools to desegregate. Ultimately, Johnson served on a three-judge panel that granted Gray's subsequent petition to place the entire state of Alabama under federal order to desegregate its schools and universities.