Bettmann  /  Corbis
May 1954: Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, after the high court's ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
By Michael E. Ross Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/15/2005 3:33:39 PM ET 2005-02-15T20:33:39

It was perhaps the signal judicial decision of the American century, the brightest dividing line between America's persistent antebellum sensibilities and its willingness to face the future, however uncertain, with all deliberate speed.

More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling outlawing state-sanctioned segregation in American public schools, a sampling of educators and authors found reason for celebration: The legacy of Brown is one of vast educational progress over two generations.

But old patterns of segregation persist. A survey of enrollment statistics reveals that, in several important ways, the school segregation Brown was enacted to end more than two generations ago remains a fact of life today, in some parts of the country worse now than it was at the time of the decisions.

Like all pivotal judicial statements, Brown has its origins in a human dilemma. In 1950, Linda Brown, a 7-year-old Topeka, Kan., schoolgirl generally unaware of racial animus, attended Monroe Elementary, a predominantly black school — forced to take an 80-minute trek that included a six-block walk through the potentially dangerous switchyards of the Rock Island railroad line, despite living closer to Sumner Elementary, attended by white students.

The NAACP, looking for a test case to use to fight segregation, got the Brown family to take Linda to Sumner and ask to register her as a student. When Linda was rebuffed, she became the lead plaintiff in the case that bears her family name. Other black families joined in the litigation, and in 1951 the NAACP requested an injunction banning segregation of Topeka's schools. 

Old world, new world
The Supreme Court, ruling on combined cases from Topeka, Kan., to Clarendon County, S.C., handed down the Brown decision on May 17, 1954. In one lightning stroke, Brown soundly repudiated Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that had long institutionalized the separate-but-equal doctrine in American life.

The fundamental right to knowledge, information — in an increasingly complex age — was judicially reaffirmed to be one for all Americans. With Brown — literally a two-decision bombshell that spread into 1955 — the stage was set for no less than the future of the nation.

There was probably no other single decision that so starkly separated the old world from the new. Theodore Shaw, the associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, may have put it best in a recent story on Brown in The New York Times. “For African Americans, it divides American history into a B.C. and an A.D.”

Educational opportunities for minorities were at the heart of Brown v. Board, but the decision has another, wider educational dimension; the ruling ushered in another phase of America's own painful learning process on modern-day race relations. Even before the emergence of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Brown v. Board set the terms of engagement that would help form the philosophical underpinnings of the civil rights movement.

Black education was central to Brown, but the larger, wider mission of the ruling was the education of the nation. For all Americans, school was in, and there’d be no cutting class.

'A tale of two nations'
A survey of African-American scholars, authors and educators finds Brown's relevance in the national life dovetails, to some extent, with their own lives.

For David J. Dent, author of “In Black America,” a 2000 survey of the status and mood of black families, a variation of a Dickensian metaphor has applications. “We're really living a dichotomy now. It's a tale of two nations.”

“The avenues to success are there for many people, but not there for many others,” he said. “We're at the point when the questions regarding race and education are much more complicated, more a reflection of access — the kind of access some African Americans have and others do not.”

This perceived difference in the quality of life between African Americans is rooted in fact. If the statistics are to be believed, maybe another Dickensian phrase obtains — something about the best and worst of times.

In 1960, only 20 percent of the black population finished high school, compared with 43 percent of the white population. Only 3 percent of African Americans graduated from college, less than half the white graduation rate of 8 percent, according to a report from the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University.

Ups and downs
“The State of the Dream 2004,” a report released by United for a Fair Economy, a nonprofit focusing on income and other economic disparities in U.S. society, found that the dropout rate for black high school students has declined 44 percent since 1968, while the white dropout rate remains relatively steady.

By 1980, over 50 percent of young African Americans were graduating from high school, and 8 percent of black students graduated from college, still less than half the rate of white graduates, the Cornell report said.

In 1999, about 86 percent of African Americans from 25 to 29 years of age had graduated from high school, a rate comparable to that of white students.

A 1999 brief from the National Science Foundation reported that participation of women and minorities in science and engineering higher education continued to rise, though not yet equal to their representation in the U.S. population of 18- to 30-year-olds.

But there's a downbeat amid these undeniable signs of change. A July 2001 study from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that school systems are resegregating, despite the impact of Brown.

Perhaps — in a nod to the idea of perception being as powerful as reality — that's why the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found, in its 2002 National Opinion Poll on education, that most whites rate their local public schools highly, while most African Americans and Hispanics give their schools only a fair grade.

New imbalances at the schoolhouse
The disparities, Dent noted, point to “people [realizing] fragments — and for some, more than fragments — of the American dream. But race is still a barrier for many people.”

Gary Orfield, a Civil Rights Project researcher and co-director, found that schools have not been as racially unbalanced since 1968, the year that witnessed a series of Supreme Court decisions that put muscle behind desegregation, the Associated Press reported.

Desegregation reached a high point in the late 1980s, but has since eroded, Orfield's research found. Most white, black and Hispanic students still go to a school where they are in the racial or ethnic majority.

“The ultimate irony is that a lot of people ... are talking about everything else but desegregation, and the country has resegregated many of its public schools,” said Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Where's the president?
What Dent finds missing from the national dialogue on race is the voice of the president. “I don't need to hear the Democrats on race anymore,” he said.

“We really need to know more from Bush; he needs to be pushed more,” Dent said of the president whose first Cabinet reflected the highest penetration of African Americans in any administration in U.S. history, but whose January 2003 statement on the admissions policy of the University of Michigan led one member of Congress to call it “a slap in the face of black America.”

“You can twist both sides of the affirmative action argument,” Dent said. “You can tweak it into this platform to justify no affirmative action in education — the whole colorblind argument — or to call for strict quotas. Rather than looking exhaustively, looking independently, people have generally used Brown to justify their own positions.

“People can take Brown and use it to justify their own racial policies that they've expressed before now,” Dent said. “Too few people are willing to step outside the box and really think about race in a way that appreciates its complexity, looks deeply at the persistence of certain kinds of racial unease in this society. Basically, we're too comfortable ... Like the MLK celebrations or the 'I Have a Dream' speech — it's a very sanitized way of looking at the persistence of racial tension in our society.”

'It's huge'
For scholar and author Roger Wilkins, education is at the crux of a life's accomplishments: assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration; Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, history and culture professor at George Mason University; National Public Radio commentator and author of “Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism,” an acclaimed 2001 study.

To Wilkins, the power of Brown is simply expressed: “It's huge. If you're black and you were born in segregation, you were aware of the fact that most people, particularly whites, didn’t have a clue of what segregation was about. It was really a massive coast-to-coast, border- to-border effort on the part of the culture to destroy the spirit and self-confidence of black people.

“You really lived on eggshells,” he said, “because at virtually any moment, any white person could insult you or deprive you of your dignity, and you never knew when it was going to happen.”

'Burst of energy'
“What Brown did was to delegitimize segregation,” Wilkins said. “It unleashed a concentrated burst of energy that lasted 16 to 20 years, by blacks and their white allies to being the country in line with where the Warren court said the country ought to be,” Wilkins said. “I'm fairly convinced there wouldn't have been a successful Montgomery bus boycott had that decision not come down.

“The whole country got a tutorial about what was going in the South for years. People started to see dignified, working-class black people demonstrating peacefully for some of the simplest basic rights there were.”

Wilkins noted that the passing of the torch to John F. Kennedy's generation in 1960 added fuel to the fire for educational parity — whether the best and brightest knew it or not.

“Kennedy grew up rich and white; he didn't know anything about black people,” Wilkins said. “But he was forced by the energy created by Brown and the later demonstrations. They knew from outside the government and inside their own administration that they weren't moving fast enough — all of that goes back to Brown.”

'Flashpoint of resistance'
“The resistance to integrated schools was beyond anything anyone could have imagined,” Wilkins noted. “There was a movement toward integrated education but it became the flashpoint of resistance to racial progress.

“Racism is a central part of American culture,” Wilkins said. “One hundred years before we were a country, we were deep into it. We constructed a country where a good part of whites' working-class sense of who they were depended on the suppression of black people. That still exists to a real degree today, which is why there's such virulent resistance to efforts to desegregate schools.”

“Conservatives have abandoned the public schools,” Wilkins said. “Among conservatives, there's this determined assault on public enterprises: Medicare, Social Security and public education. The result is we have a decreased support for public education generally.”

Not just education, but edifice
One problem Wilkins alluded to has less to do with the racial composition of schools than with their condition — the literal infrastructure of the buildings themselves.

Video: S.C. town still struggles with Brown decision Reports from the U.S. Department of Education and the General Accounting Office found that older buildings sometimes lack adequate electrical and telecom wiring.

That problem's made worse by growing demand for new school construction, and school districts' frustrated efforts at fiscal triage — deciding how to spend less and less money on facilities that need more and more work.

Add to those challenges the impact of overcrowding. Spikes in enrollment due to the “baby-boom echo,“ immigration and the rise in the native-born U.S. minority population mean that many schools enroll a lot more students than it's possible to accommodate, the two agencies determined.

“Public schools that should be the rock bottom of a democracy of people able to discuss issues and make informed judgments are withering,” Wilkins said. “There's no national consensus to fix it, just a consensus to diddle around the edges.”

Some lament slow progress
For Tyler Stovall, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and author of “Paris Noir,” a 1996 study of black expatriates, progress in America since Brown has been discouragingly slow. 

“In my view, over the last 20 years, whenever issues turn to race, all the mainstream political candidates run the other way. Mainstream political culture is simply incapable of dealing with questions of race in this country. I think it'll be ignored.

“Look back at Clinton's attempt to have a national dialogue on race,” Stovall said. “America has reached the point where it's simply unable to deal with the issue of race. That's the dominant ethos these days.”

From document to reality
George E. Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and a newspaper columnist, called Brown a wake-up call that still resonates powerfully.

“Brown v. Board of Education, more than any other court decision, made our conduct as a nation come closer to matching our professed ideals and values,” Curry said. “We moved from merely stating that all men are created equal to insisting that all people be treated equally and not be relegated to separate and materially inferior facilities.

“In many ways, Brown v. Board made the Constitution come alive. What had been articulated in a document became a reality, and the entire country is the better for it,” said Curry, whose weekly newspaper column is syndicated to more than 200 African-American papers.

Curry noted the decision's ripple effect on other facets of American life. “Brown did more to open up other areas for desegregation — public accommodations, open housing, interstate commerce and the like — than desegregating public education.”

What Brown v. Board ushered into America is bigger than education, and has importance for more than African Americans. Its legacy is part the process of keeping Brown a living, organic aspect of the national life, rather than a document of the distant past.

“The problem of eliminating race burden should not be just [African Americans'] responsibility,” David Dent said.

“It's a national issue,” he said. “If this experiment in a multiracial democracy is going to work, everyone needs to think about how their perceptions of race are not only unfair to African Americans ... but also unfair to the nation.”

This story was first published in 2004 and has been updated. The Associated Press contributed to this report. Michael E. Ross is author of Interesting Times: Essays and Nonfiction.

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