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Brown v. Board: 50 years later

May 14, 2004 | Page 8

MAY 17 marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared an end to segregation in public schools. The Brown ruling overturned the "separate but equal" standard established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case--on the grounds that racially divided schools were inherently unequal. The decision was a blow to the racists who wanted to preserve Jim Crow segregation--and helped launch an era of struggle for civil rights.

MICHELE BOLLINGER looks back at the Brown ruling--and the struggles fought to make integration a reality.

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SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Barbara Johns had had enough. So when she arrived at her all-Black Moton High School in segregated Farmville, Va., one morning in April 1951, she and a group of fellow students secretly arranged for the school principal to be called out of the building and announced a student assembly for later that day. Teachers who brought their students to the assembly were shocked to find the meeting wasn't school-sanctioned. Johns demanded that they leave the room.

With that, the 450 Black students walked out and went on strike. The protest wasn't mainly over the issue of integration, but over the dire conditions of Farmville's all-Black schools. Johns' school was so crowded that the county had built three tar-paper shacks for use as classrooms. Students spent winter days sitting on their coats on the floor, waiting for their history teacher, who was also the bus driver, to finish gathering wood to start a fire each morning.

The NAACP was reluctant to support the students, calling the strike "illegal," but after two weeks, its legal fund agreed to take their case. By the early 1950s, similar cases in four states and in Washington, D.C., were filed together as Brown and reached the Supreme Court.

For generations, Black schools had suffered neglect. In Clarendon County, S.C., white schools had flushing toilets, but Black schools had outhouses. Some Black schools had no running water or electricity; others lacked desks, gyms and auditoriums.

In 1940, per-pupil spending in Southern Black schools was 45 percent of white schools--in Mississippi, it was just 15 percent. Black teachers and students worked hard to compensate for the glaring inequalities, but Black Americans still suffered higher rates of illiteracy.

This was the backdrop for the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision--a unanimous ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Yet the justices who decided Brown weren't progressive or especially enlightened. Even the few judges opposed to segregation in principle were reluctant to overturn Plessy. Chief Justice Earl Warren, appointed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, had promoted the detention of 100,000 Japanese Americans during the Second World War when he was the attorney general of California.

The reality was that people's ideas about segregation began to change during and after the Second World War. As the U.S. fought a "war for democracy" in Europe, it was increasingly difficult to reconcile America's projected image abroad with the reality at home--that millions of Blacks were forced to live as second-class citizens. By 1948, President Harry Truman had signed an order ending segregation in the armed forces.

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WHEN THE Brown ruling came down, millions celebrated it and the hopes it represented. "Jubilation, optimism and hope filled my home...I could see the veil of oppression lift from my parents' shoulders. It seemed they were standing taller," recounted Sara Lightfoot, who was 10 years old in 1954. "And for the first time in my life I saw tears in my fathers' eyes. 'This is a great and important day,' he said reverently to his children."

Harlem's Amsterdam News declared, "The Supreme Court decision is the greatest victory for the Negro people since the Emancipation Proclamation." The case raised the expectations of millions of African Americans.

But while Brown was a blow to racism, it would mean very little unless people stood up to defend it. In fact, in 1964, 10 years after the decision, only 1.2 percent of Black students in the South attended integrated schools.

The Supreme Court had made no plans for the pace or process of integration, ruling only that desegregation should happen with "all deliberate speed." This amounted to nothing--which became very clear when racist politicians vowed to defy the ruling and went on the offensive.

While Eisenhower professed that he would obey the Brown decision, he privately defended the racism of Southern whites, telling Warren that they "are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negro." Southern state governments, led by segregationist Democrats, passed racist measures aimed at blocking desegregation and breaking the will of those challenging Jim Crow.

Some Southern states declared integration illegal. Georgia made it a felony to spend public money on desegregated schools. Virginia launched the "Massive Resistance" between 1959 and 1964--in which public schools ordered to desegregate were simply closed, locking out some 12,000 students.

In September 1957, when nine Black students tried to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to stop them. The courts ordered Faubus to remove the Guard, but he ignored them at first, only to pull them out later--and leave the nine Black students unprotected.

Racist mobs beat Black reporters outside the school, and the students had to be escorted out in secret to protect their safety. After weeks of accommodating Faubus, Eisenhower sent 1,000 Army troops to escort the students for the rest of the school year.

Racist politicians opened the doors for white mob violence outside schools and in the streets. When Autherine Lucy tried to enter the University of Alabama's graduate school in 1956, 500 people marched against her, yelling "Keep Bama White." She was later expelled. In 1960, when 6-year-old Ruby Bridges tried to enter an all-white school in New Orleans, 150 whites protested, throwing eggs and hurling threats.

Throughout the South, violence against Blacks intensified. Between 1954 and 1959, there were more than 200 recorded acts of racist violence against Blacks--including the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Yet regardless of the racist backlash, Brown had raised the expectations of millions of Blacks--and resistance to segregation grew more broadly in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

While some forces continued to battle for desegregation through the legal system, many more realized that power lies outside these institutions. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the growing civil rights movement gathered steam, creating the kind of social force needed to counteract the racists and roll back their attacks.

What's more, the growing social crisis in the 1960s radicalized millions of people to challenge the de facto segregation that plagued Northern states. By the early 1970s, the power of the movement against racism had won important reforms such as busing and affirmative action.

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NOW, 50 years after Brown, equity in education is far from a reality for the majority of public school students. The Harvard Civil Rights Project found that public schools today have re-segregated at a level not seen since the 1960s. Wealthy, all-white suburban schools sit a few miles from poor inner-city schools that are predominately Black and Latino.

One reason for these setbacks is that many of the civil rights reforms of the 1960s--such as affirmative action--have been rolled back or eliminated entirely. Furthermore, funding for public education has been cut across the country--replaced with money for vigorous standardized testing, and even private school vouchers.

Finally, neither Brown nor the reforms won by the civil rights movement went far enough in addressing the roots of inequity in public education. As long as funding for public schools is linked to the value of property taxes, wealthy areas will have good schools, and poor areas will have inferior ones.

The lesson from Brown isn't so much the importance of the legal victory, but instead, the massive level of struggle that it took to make desegregation a reality. We need to rebuild that struggle to win real equity for all students.

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