Fight continues to realize Brown vs. Board of Education’s goal
Rev. Gerald Britt, Jr.
When Oscar Brown, a Kansas welder, challenged the system in what became known as Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, he wanted nothing more than to not drive past a white school seven blocks from his home to get to a black school, several miles away. Could he have known that his lawsuit represented the end of legal segregation, propelling America toward a greater realization of its democratic promise and setting the stage for a more perfect union?
The May 17, 1954, Supreme Court ruling said that segregation held no place in our country and that the process of school integration should take place with “all deliberate speed.” Before this clung the standard of “separate but equal” in public facilities and accommodations, based on the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision.
In reversing itself, the court declared that segregation produced public institutions that were inherently separate and unequal. The ruling validated the NAACP counsel’s argument, led by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, that segregation did psychological harm to black children by reinforcing a sense of inferiority that could last a lifetime. Or, as Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “To separate [black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Sixty years after the decision, America proceeds to move toward compliance with deliberate lethargy.
The most famous attempt to nullify the law took place at Little Rock Central High School and, later in Richmond, Va., where the governor shut down public schools rather than comply.
It took Dallas nearly 50 years to reach full compliance; it took Richardson ISD almost 60 years. Both achieved compliance only after the schools reached majority-minority status. And yet, even then, additional suits had to be filed.
In 2009, a year after an $80 million shortfall in DISD, then-Superintendent Michael Hinojosa proposed and the school board adopted a budget that took away special funding from learning centers in South Dallas and spread the money “equally” among all district schools. This came despite the fact that the learning-center strategy was developed by Judge Barefoot Sanders and the plaintiffs in the DISD lawsuit Tasby vs. Estes to address the economic and social ills brought about by de facto segregation.
The momentous decision of Brown vs. Board of Education is still vulnerable to attack. Exacerbated by poverty, our schools are just as segregated today as they were 60 years ago. White flight and shrewdly drawn attendance boundaries threaten the moral sanctity of Brown. More than 7.5 million students attend schools designated as “high poverty” campuses, and more than a third of those students are black. In the 50 largest cities in America, only 53 percent of students graduate on time. Nineteen percent of black students attend schools that don’t offer Advanced Placement courses.
A do-nothing Congress and a more conservative Supreme Court provide little hope. But first lady Michelle Obama, in an address to high school seniors in Topeka, Kan., on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the ruling, talked about the momentous events that began in their hometown:
“Our laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but nothing in the Constitution says we have to eat together in the lunchroom, or live together in the same neighborhoods. … So the answers to many of our challenges today can’t necessarily be found in our laws. These changes also need to take place in our hearts and in our minds.”