On May 17, 1954, the landmark ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case was handed down and Saturday denotes the 60th anniversary of this important Supreme Court decision. The case was brought before the court by the legal team at the NAACP. The focus was to end segregation in the public school system.
The epi-center was Topeka, Kansas. Several families were turned away when they attempted to enroll their children in schools that were near their homes, but were for white students only. Oliver Brown was one of the parents. His daughter, Linda, was not allowed to attend an all-white elementary school. Similar cases in the District of Columbia, Delaware, Virginia and South Carolina also joined the lawsuit.
Almost to the day, 58 years earlier, Plessy v. Ferguson had established the “separate but equal” philosophy that was prevalent in public places throughout the nation. Brown v. Board of Education essentially overturned that decision. Unanimously, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation denied black students the guarantee under the 14th Amendment to equal protection under the law.
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that separate but equal had no place in public education. To him, the inherent inequality of separate facilities for education was unacceptable.
Several of the key players in the case went on to do great works. In 1967, the first African-American Supreme Court justice was Thurgood Marshall. During Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall was the head of the legal team at the NAACP. He had actually argued parts of the historically significant case. Oliver Brown became a minister. His daughters Cheryl and Linda were active in founding the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.
Interestingly, the the ruling was not immediately enforced. Warren ordered the lower courts to inform school districts and states that they needed to admit students in a nondiscriminatory fashion with “all deliberate speed” in 1955. it is well known that the Southern states were extremely resistant.
White students were removed from schools by their parents and school officials defied the federal ruling.
In Green v. New Kent County, a case brought before the court in 1968, it was ruled that any state operating still segregated schools needed to devise a system that would eliminate discrimination “root and branch.” In a decision that led to the successful use of busing, 1971’s Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education supported mixing students from various neighborhoods at one school. This not only promoted racial, but economic, integration. Unfortunately, many of the busing and desegregation orders have since been done away with. Thankfully, taking note of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is reigniting interest in these ongoing issues.
According to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, using Department of Education data, since 1990, segregation has been steadily increasing. In fact, black students are even more segregated than in 1970. In the U.S. in 2011, 23 percent of black students were enrolled in majority-white schools. Since 1968, that is the lowest percentage and significantly below the 44 percent seen in 1988. Latino students, the biggest minority group in the public education system, are also being affected by segregation. These students are now more likely to go to school with other Latino children than are black students.
This reversal in practice, even though Brown v. Board of Eduction is very much still in effect, is partially due to the federal courts allowing certain school districts to be removed from Brown-inspired orders for desegregation. Changing demographics, white students withdrawing from the public school system, the advent of charter schools and a flourishing Latino population are also contributors.
After 60 years of Brown v. Board of Education, educational disparity is still a major issue in this country. Released by the Department of Education, civil rights data reveals conspicuous disparities in every aspect of education. Some examples are: continued gaps in national assessment scores between black, white and Hispanic students, minority students being granted less access to advanced science and mathematics courses and at any age, including preschool, black students are more likely to have disciplinary actions placed upon them, like suspension.
The Hispanic and black student population has seen tremendous growth since 1954. The educational inequities they experience seem to be growing as well. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, believes that, though the courts were able to shine a light on the problem and give voice to those discriminated against, they cannot make the necessary changes alone. According to Weingarten, the courts “do not create the moral authority and the concrete steps to make the promise of public education a reality for all children.” Clearly, on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education it must be admitted that the case was merely a first step on a long journey to equality.
by Stacy Lamy