On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the segregation of African American children in schools was unconstitutional, in effect restoring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which freed enslaved Africans. It also reversed the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which stated that there should be “separate but equal” public accommodations for Blacks and whites.
It is now 50 years later. Much talking, handwringing and assessing has been going on this year and will continue through the end of the year. The suit brought by the NAACP – Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas – called for the non-segregation of public schools. It was interpreted to mean that schools everywhere in the United States were to be integrated. That was to be accomplished by busing African American students, in carefully controlled numbers, from their neighborhoods into “white” schools. African American schools were closed and teachers, administrators and staff lost jobs.
In some parts of the country, resistance among whites was so high that schools were closed. Prince George’s County, Va., closed its schools for five years in order not to integrate them. At the same time they provided non-African American families with “vouchers,” called tuition grants, to attend “Christian academies.” These academies, which sprung up all over the country, most particularly in the South, were hastily structured and constructed institutions to provide a way around the new law.
In the reassessment of Brown, much has been made about the state of current education: how the schools are physically crumbling and failing our children. Some people assume that schools were better in the “old days,” that students were taught better, and that schools graduated more students and sent more of them off to college. None of this is true. Compulsory school attendance until the age of 16 only became law in the 1950s. There are now more high school and college graduates than ever before – and the highest percentage of the population ever obtaining post-high-school education.
What the Brown decision did was what it never intended to do: it spawned the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The decision gave heart and hope to a lawfully beleaguered segment of the population. It also gave birth to the Voting Rights Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The schools were chosen consciously or not because they represented the entrenched willingness of the state to keep a people degraded for generation after generation. Children would start “knowing their place” early. It was not just the fact of segregation – people everywhere live near their relatives and compatriots and people culturally like them. It was also the restriction from other places. Accommodations designated “colored” were purposely and obviously inferior. Lawful segregation is lawful terrorization. If Brown taught us nothing else – 50 years after the fact – it did teach us that we could shake off our visible shackles, but it reminds us that we are not done, that we cannot afford to relax.
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