After all these years, Ernest Green still smiles when he remembers that first day of class his senior year.
He rode to school in a military convoy with machine-gun-mounted jeeps. And to finally get inside the previously all-white Central High School, he was ushered by police through a side door, only to be rushed back out by lunchtime for fear an angry mob would harm him and his black classmates.
“I was upset that I had to leave class,” Green, the oldest member of the Little Rock Nine, said Wednesday during an interview from the Westin Fort Lauderdale hotel. “But it was clearly a standout day.”
Today, Green’s stories of the integration of Central in 1957 are echoes of the intolerance that once was. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s smacking down of the “separate but equal” doctrine three years earlier, Green and other black students around the country shattered racial barriers and set off the slow, steady integration of American schools and culture.
And yet, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, civil rights activists say there is still a ways to go in achieving the promise of equal education and opportunity for all. On Wednesday, dozens gathered in Fort Lauderdale to call for increased efforts to improve equality and public education during a national conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“When I look at where we are today and the degree of physical racial segregation of schools throughout America as well as in student achievement, clearly there’s enormous progress we still need to make,” said Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. “You look at it some days and you wonder if Brown was ever here.”
The challenges mentioned Wednesday included h igh unemployment rates, voting rights and the disproportionate number of arrests of black youths. But with the event pegged to the Brown ruling’s anniversary, much of the conversation focused on education and issues like curriculums, the re-segregation of schools and the black achievement gap.
Runcie said there is still a need for increased training and pay for teachers, rethinking parent engagement and increasing community support for children. In that vein, Arthur Burnett Sr., a retired federal judge who was among the plaintiffs in the Brown case, said the black community needs to lift up its own, struggling families.
“The bigger problem isn’t the public education system, but dealing with the home settings in which these kids exist,” said Burnett.
Lorraine Miller, interim president of the NAACP, said she hopes those who attended the convention would look at the conversations as a call for action.
“The public sphere has to help make sure the resources are allocated, and it’s up to the community to make sure those resources are geared toward a quality education for every child,” said Miller.