In May, the nation celebrated a milestone on its journey to fulfill the promise of "liberty and justice for all." Fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled against legally mandated racial segregation in the public schools in its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Amidst all the events marking the 50th anniversary of the ruling, we should remember that Brown was neither the beginning nor the end of the struggle for justice and equality.
The 1954 Brown decision was actually made up of five cases challenging school segregation in Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. These cases were part of a long-standing legal attack on segregation in all its forms by the NAACP legal team under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, who would later serve as a justice on the Supreme Court.
"separate but equal"
The doctrine that they opposed and eventually overturned—that "separate but equal" public accommodations made racial integration unnecessary—had been set forth by the Supreme Court in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. Obstacles to African Americans' obtaining education in particular were older even than the nation itself: Starting in South Carolina in 1740, "compulsory ignorance" laws were enacted and enforced, making it illegal to teach enslaved Africans to read and write.
"Affluent suburban districts can afford state-of-the-art textbooks and technology; schools in the inner cities and isolated rural areas too often still make do with dilapidated buildings and out-of-date instructional materials."
Just as Brown was not the commencement of the effort for equal educational opportunity, neither was it the conclusion. The Supreme Court waited a year after the 1954 Brown decision before ruling on how and when desegregation would take place—and then offered the vague formulation that it must occur "with all deliberate speed."
Over the next decade, public officials in the South resisted school desegregation. State legislatures passed "interposition" resolutions maintaining that Brown was an unconstitutional encroachment upon states' rights. Members of Congress from the South set forth the same theory in their "Southern Manifesto." Their legislatures created "sovereignty commissions" to resist federal efforts to desegregate their schools. Starting with Prince Edward County, Virginia, several school districts closed their schools rather than integrate them, appropriating funds for private schools, repealing compulsory education laws, or making school attendance a "local option."
Even when school districts did adopt desegregation plans, they often created ineffective "freedom of choice" plans that left black schools segregated and allowed only a few African American children to attend white schools. Other school districts followed historical boundary lines for school attendance that reflected segregated housing patterns. By 1964, only 2.14 percent of the black students in seven Southern states attended integrated schools.
Meanwhile, in the North, where public schools were segregated in fact, although not by law, there was growing opposition to efforts to achieve greater racial balance. While protests against school busing in Boston made headlines, a controversy in the Detroit metropolitan area turned the tide against desegregation. In its decision in 1974 in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court held that, in most cases, federal courts cannot impose a desegregation plan upon a city and its surrounding suburbs. This ruling set the tone for similar decisions in 1991, 1992, and 1995, authorizing the dismantling of desegregation plans.
As the 21st century begins, equal educational opportunity for all American children remains a dream deferred. In the North and South alike, desegregation has been thrown into reverse gear, with 70 percent of the nation's black students in predominantly minority schools. Because school systems are financed by local revenues and different communities have access to different levels of resources, educational opportunity is rationed by class. Affluent suburban districts can afford state-of-the-art textbooks and technology; schools in the inner cities and isolated rural areas too often still make do with dilapidated buildings and out-of-date instructional materials. While a new federal education law is entitled "No Child Left Behind," the isolation of children from poor families and communities makes a mockery of this slogan.
Tragically, 50 years after Brown our nation still cannot celebrate the fulfillment of the promise of public education that works for all of our nation's young people. But the commemorations of this historic decision will offer the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to that goal.