Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that changed America, is 60 years old this Saturday. It’s a time both to applaud the progress this country has made and to worry about the inequities in education that still persist.
Brown v. Board of Education was the culmination of 30 years of legal struggle by civil rights lawyers mostly from Howard University and the NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston.
The specific goal was equal education for black children in the United States. The larger goal was to eventually dismantle America’s depraved legal caste system that kept most blacks oppressed as second-class citizens.
“Jim Crow” education was just part of a legal system that kept black people down and maintained white privilege. Restrooms, water fountains, public transportation, cemeteries and hospitals were all governed by this system of white supremacy. Full voting rights and access to various occupations were also denied to blacks.
Oliver Leon Brown, the father of 8-year-old Linda Brown, brought the famous case. Linda had to walk a mile in Topeka, Kan., through a dangerous rail yard just to attend an obviously inferior elementary school for black children. Mr. Brown just wanted his daughter to receive a good education and attend a well-funded and well-maintained school like the ones white children attended.
The U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled in Oliver Brown’s favor and delivered the historic unanimous opinion. The separate but equal doctrine “has no place” in “the field of public education,” Warren wrote, because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Fierce resistance to school desegregation began in public school systems around the country. Southern states declared that racial segregation would be maintained in schools and in all other aspects of Southern life. And many whites, in the North and the South, clung to their privilege.
But the decision helped spark a people’s movement for fundamental change in America and not just in education. This movement, along with the court’s decision, ended Jim Crow once and for all.
Blatant discrimination had to go, and many social attitudes changed for the better. Today, blacks are able to live where they wish, marry whom they love, whether black or not, and rise in every profession.
Yet on the very issue that Brown discussed — public education — the gains have largely not materialized.
When Brown was decided, 77 percent of blacks attended a school that had a majority of students of color. Today, 74 percent of blacks attend such a school.
Most important, these black children, on average, still attend inferior, underfunded schools.
The U.S. Department of Education also reports “a pattern of punitive policies and educational neglect that disproportionately hurt black, Latino and Native American students in public schools.” For decent education to elude so many black children 60 years after this legendary case is profoundly disturbing. On this 60th anniversary of the Brown decision, we must vow to solve this problem once and for all.
Brian Gilmore is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.
© 2014, Brian Gilmore
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