Fifty years ago this week, the Supreme Court ruled that America’s centuries-old tradition of racial separation was illegal under the U.S. Constitution, beginning the process of melding blacks and whites into one society.
On May 17, 1954, the High Court shattered the foundation for the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had cemented America’s longstanding “separate but equal” standard of apartheid.
Because of Plessy, black children were forced to travel to schools miles away, even though there were public schools blocks from their houses. The scenario played out across all aspects of black life – where African Americans shopped, went to school and where they lived. It affected how they traveled on bus or rail, where they lodged, where they ate, and where they could go to the restroom or to see a movie. And blacks who violated the law were often jailed, beaten and sometimes killed – usually without any legal repercussions.
Linda Brown, a third-grader in Topeka, Kan., attended an all-black school far from home, even though the school her white playmates attended was just up the street. The NAACP asked her parents and those of 12 other parents in Topeka, Kan., to enroll their children into white schools.
When they were denied access, NAACP lawyers filed a class-action suit in 1951 against the Board of Education of Topeka Schools. In addition, they filed suits and a joint appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 200 plaintiffs in Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The case was named Brown v. Board of Education, because Linda's last name started with a 'B' and was alphabetically the first among the plaintiffs.
The late Thurgood Marshall, the chief lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said, “The only way I can be sure my kid is getting an equal education is for him to be in the same classroom with the whites.”
In the landmark decision in four school desegregation cases, bundled in one cataclysmic nugget known as Oliver Brown et al., Appellants, v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, et al., the High Court disintegrated lower court rulings, thus desegregating public schools.
With one sweeping voice, the court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, proclaimed that “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” in public education.
But change was slow.
Blacks nationwide cheered the decision, many believing it would immediately force a recalcitrant white society to comply with the ruling. Few Americans, black or white, realized just how much resistance white society would mount to counter the eventuality of Brown.
A full decade after the Brown decision, barely 1 percent of southern blacks attended integrated schools. By 1992, according a Harvard University report, slightly more than a quarter of blacks in the South attended integrated schools. Today, a half-century after Brown, about 70 percent of black children attend schools where more than 50 percent of the students are black.
To talk about the ills of modern-day segregation doesn't suggest that black children need white children to learn, says Jeanne Middleton-Hairston, national director of Freedom Schools for the Children’s Defense Fund, but it speaks to the fact that predominantly black schools tend to be the most dilapidated, and often contain the poorest equipment, the oldest books and the most unqualified teachers. Even within the black community, schools often are segregated by socio-economic class, she says.
And the resistance to integrated education did not focus only on elementary and junior high schools. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 250 Arkansas National Guard to force a white mob – fueled by the racist rantings of then Gov. Orval Eugene Faubus – to stand down and allow Ernest G. Green and eight other black youths into Little Rock’s Central High School. Six years later, Gov. George C. Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, denying admission to blacks. It took President Kennedy’s deployment of the National Guard to squash this resistance.
Many activists and educators say it is important to emphasize the fight maintained by African Americans over these past 50 years.
“We are a much better world because of integration,” says Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard University professor of law. “We are a better society because segregation denied African Americans opportunities that were available to every other citizen. We paid funds as taxpayers to build public institutions such as schools, and we were denied access to them.”
“By bringing diverse ideas to the table, we contribute to a richer and deeper discussion about our nation.”
The gains of integration transcend all racial and ethnic groups,” says Ogletree, author of All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education.
The Task for This Generation
“This young generation will determine the future successes and failures of our people,” predicted Ogletree.
Timothy Reilly, a white student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., agreed Brown is important but admits it’s hard for Generation X to understand something they didn’t live.
He says the “hip-hop generation” has become more successful economically, socially and politically than any other generation in the 21st Century. In fact, the members of Generation X - 38 million Americans between the 16 and 29 years old – are the newer benefactors of Brown.
“We didn’t see segregation, so it really doesn’t click in for us,” said Reilly, a Long Island, N.Y. native. “I feel we should do a better job to integrate ourselves,” Reilly said. “We could all move forward as a whole together.”
A review of Gallup Polls shows that most Americans endorse the court's ruling on the Brown case, and believe that educational opportunities for blacks are far better today than 50 years ago. Most blacks today are also satisfied with their own education and their opportunities to succeed in life, but, at the same time, believe that black children today do not have the same educational opportunities as white children do. Whites are more positive than blacks on all three counts.
The message, say Ogletree and others, is that despite the gains, there's much work that lies ahead.
“We will stop fighting for the rights of African Americans the moment the playing field is leveled,” he said. “We’re fighting for equal justice. No more. No less.”