On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared that racially segregated public schools are inherently unequal and are in violation of the equal protection laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868.
Before that spring day, 50 years ago, 17 Southern states and the District of Columbia had enforced mandatory racial segregation in their public schools. Some other states had allowed it by leaving the decision to local school districts. The challenges to this segregation, which reached the Supreme Court, came from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. They were all consolidated into the historic Kansas case labeled Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Oliver Brown, who became the lead plaintiff of nearly 200 others, was the father of a seven-year-old daughter, Linda, who had to walk for more than an hour, across railroad tracks, to the segregated Monroe Elementary School in Topeka.
Linda Brown’s sister, Cheryl, formed a foundation that in 1990 was able to buy the abandoned Monroe School as a historic building, and last year she got passage of congressional legislation making it a National Historic Site. It is to be dedicated in Topeka this year on the May 17 anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.
A lot of other jarring racial conflicts are not as well memorialized, but are not forgotten. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to a seat designated for blacks at the rear of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then organized a bus boycott, and a federal judge declared the bus segregation unconstitutional. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on interstate buses, a decision that opened the way for busloads of interracial civil rights activists to begin traveling to the South for “Freedom Ride” demonstrations.
In 1957 then-Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas sent National Guardsmen to a white Little Rock high school to bar nine black students from entering. When a federal court ordered an end to that blockade, school authorities refused to admit the black students and President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly sent in U.S. Army troops to enforce it.
That same year Congress passed a civil rights act authorizing the Justice Department to try enforcing voting rights for blacks. The Washington bureaucracy did that so poorly that a second, more vigorous voting rights act was passed in 1960.
But things got worse. In 1963, after Dr. King led civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham and his filmed arrest in a brutal police roundup—and after King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech before an audience of thousands in Washington—a black Baptist church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four Sunday-school children.
That required yet another measure, the so-called Omnibus bill, passed by Congress in 1964, outlawing discrimination in voting, hiring and public accommodations. A year later came the news-making march in Alabama from segregated Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. And in 1968 King was assassinated in Memphis, just before the months-long Poor People’s Campaign, which he had helped organize. It filled the National Mall in Washington with the tents and huts of thousands of low-wage protesters, black and white.
HOW REFORM BEGAN—As early as 1950 the New York office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), under the leadership of an attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as the first black Supreme Court Justice, began working on a case to strike down the Court’s landmark 1896 decision, in Plessy v. Ferguson, that “separate but equal” schooling was constitutional. Arguments before the Supreme Court began in December 1952 and were continued in December 1953. The Court’s historic, unanimous decision came five months later.
The decision was the masterwork of Chief Justice Earl Warren, appointed to the Court and made Chief Justice by President Eisenhower. Warren, a Republican, was a former attorney general and a three-term governor of California, and had been Thomas Dewey’s vice presidential running mate in 1948. He persuaded the Court to answer the plaintiffs’ pleadings with a unanimous opinion that asked a question and gave a definitive answer.
The question was, “Does segregation of children in the public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other tangible factors may be equal, deprive the minority group of equal education opportunities?” And the answer: “We believe it does.”
As written by Justice Warren, the opinion went on: “Where a state has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . . . We have now announced that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.”
NOT LISTENING—But managing the desegregation orders of the Court did not go well in Prince Edward County, Virginia, 60 miles south of Richmond. Segregationists in the county seat of Farmville had made their militantly anti-black local government one of the five issues wrapped together in the Brown case before the Supreme Court in 1954. They lost then, but they waited until 1959 to comply, when vigorous resistance efforts by state legislators were finally overruled by lower courts.
Then they did the unthinkable. The county government blocked public funding for all county schools, black and white and shut them down for five years. Financed at first by local donations, then by state grants, whites-only “private academies” were quickly created for most of the white school population.
As a Washington-based reporter for the New York Times, one of a dozen Times newsmen covering school and other civil rights controversies in the 1960s, I accompanied then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on a government helicopter flight to Farmville as he tried to negotiate a compromise. It was not only a nothing-doing meeting. I learned from local newsmen—and told Kennedy—that the county police had wiretapped his telephone at a local hotel.
It finally took another Supreme Court decision, in May 1964—a decade after Brown v. Board—to force the reopening of those Virginia public schools. Today, Prince Edward County High School is reported to have a student population that is 56 percent black, 42 percent white.
But this came at a time when there were lynchings, threats and Ku Klux Klan cross burnings across the South. Segregationists didn’t like Yankee newsmen, either. I was shot at—unsuccessfully—when I was standing at night in a roadside phone booth in Cambridge, Maryland, where the governor had sent in an armed force to rout large street demonstrations by blacks. The shooter hit only the overhead light bulb.
Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, has an Intelligence Project that tracks the KKK and other hate groups. It says that such groups are growing.
IT DIDN’T DO IT—As the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it recently, the irony of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was that over “a half century such a profound and far-reaching decision should have fallen so far short of its specific objective: the integration of public schools.
“The legal barrier to desegregation was removed,” Herbert wrote, “and over several tension-filled years many schools were integrated. But the trend is in the opposite direction.”
Herbert quotes Ted Shaw, an NAACP lawyer, as saying that “we live in an era now where school desegregation is all but done. We’re resegregating. And no one really seems to care.”
Bob Herbert’s bleak conclusion is that we have to look at Brown v. Board in two ways. “It unlocked the door to a brief but glorious period of increased freedom and civil rights for all Americans. But its main goal has been thwarted by those who want nothing less than to slam the door shut and lock it once again. It’s not just a betrayal of Brown. It’s a betrayal of America.”
David Hilfiker, a physician and a close observer of integration and medical care for the disadvantaged, who wrote our January 1 critique of the Bush administration’s policies in assisting the poor, has written that “we live the myth of equal opportunity.” Of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling he says that “50 years later we are not only still segregated, but cannot even pretend that the separate are equal.” He cites a bleak health statistic: infant mortality among African-Americans is two and a half times the rate among whites.
Some recent books on the Brown ruling contend that integration is still more rhetoric than reality, and that more effort should be focused on making separate minority schools equal.
Three good books are From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Michael Klarman; Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes of Racial Reform by Derrick Bell; and All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education by Charles Ogletree, Jr.
Following the Supreme Court’s fateful 1954 decision, a Gallup Poll found that 53 percent of those responding approved of it. But now, a half-century later, Gallup finds that 68 percent of African-Americans still believe that black children do not have educational parity. But only 34 percent of whites agree.
A study cited by the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan Washington think tank, shows that among children born since 1970 the gap in educational attainment between whites and African-Americans has closed to one-sixth of what it was a century ago.
And a recent Gallup poll found that 90 percent of a random sample of Americans think that educational opportunities for black children have improved since 1954, but that 38 percent of them believe that they are not yet equal to those for white children. One-third of those polled—31 percent—attributed the gap to racial discrimination of students in public schools.
By a number of estimates racial discrimination has also been applied to African-American teachers. USA Today has reported that by the mid-1960s more than 38,000 black teachers and school principals in 17 Southern states had lost their jobs. In North Carolina alone the number of black school principals dropped from 620 to 40 between 1971 and 1987. This was so even though the data, collected by the National Education Association, showed that 85 percent of minority teachers had college degrees, compared with 75 percent of white teachers.
The statistical analysis of race can become absurdly biased. Based on its study of decisions by courtroom juries assembled to hear and rule on trials involving corporate and business conflicts, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce complains that juries in jurisdictions with large numbers of “people of color” are the “least fair and reasonable to corporations.” That’s because they often approve big damage claims.
After the Brown case was decided, many cities and counties were forced to gradually introduce compulsory—and controversial—student busing systems that brought black children from their segregated neighborhoods to formerly all-white schools. That did not work well and was widely opposed by white parents, both in court and on the streets in demonstrations by white protesters.
When white protests finally reached the Supreme Court in 1969, the court rejected them and upheld busing in Charlotte, North Carolina. It took them 30 years, but in 1999 seven objecting parents of white Charlotte students won a federal district court decision lifting the busing requirement.
THE WORLD TURNS—The anniversary of another historic racial-equality breakthrough came this month in South Africa. Ten years ago an election that finally allowed blacks to vote went overwhelmingly for freedom and ended the racist apartheid regime imposed there by white settlers from Europe.
Last month the black liberation party, known as the African National Congress (ANC), won nearly 70 percent of the national vote that elected President Thabo Mbeki and gave the ANC control of all nine of the country’s sometimes troublesome provinces.
The major player in South Africa’s liberation from white racism, retired President Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism, was the most wildly cheered figure at an inauguration gathering of thousands.
COMPUTERS CRASH—The fight for voters’ rights has become more than a racial minority issue with the spread of doubts about electronic voting machines of questionable reliability.
Now California has made sweeping decisions to ban more than 14,000 “AccuVote” polling place computers made by Diebold, Inc., the most challenged manufacturer of electronic voting machines, and to put 28,000 other touch-screen devices on hold until they are improved.
Kevin Shelley, California’s secretary of state, also recommended that the state government consider civil and even criminal charges against Diebold for what he called its “fraudulent actions” and “deceitful behavior” (see The Washington Spectator, April 15, 2004).
That was the first threat of criminal action, but in other states opponents of electronic voting machines have filed civil law suits. In Maryland, a reform group called Campaign for Verifiable Voting has sued the state board of elections, demanding that it block the use of 16,000 touch-screen machines until paper print-out verification devices are installed. They show voters at a glance how they have voted, allowing them to try again if the printed tally is wrong.