May 17, 2004, 8:30 P.M.
May 17, 2004 is the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the case that signaled the beginning of the end of institutionalized segregation in this country. The case overturned the court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the doctrine of "separate but equal" as a tenet of American law.
"Separate but equal," under Plessy v. Ferguson, meant that state and federal institutions could create segregated facilities, as long as the services provided to citizens were somehow "equal." In Brown v. Board of Education, the "separate but equal" in education was struck down. The Brown court said, among other things, that there was no way that the "separate but equal" doctrine could be enforced. In its unanimous decision, the court said that "The segregation of white and negro children in the public schools of a state, solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. . .even though the physical facilities and other tangible factors of white and negro schools may be equal." The Court further ruled that education must be provided to all children, on equal terms and that the separate but equal doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson had no place in public education.
Brown is an eloquent and historic statement of the law and it was as profound a pronouncement of the rights of black people in this country as was ever written, despite the flaws in its language, which were exploited and subsequently in the years following the announcement of the Court’s decision. As much as it was a statement intended to bring a legacy of discrimination and the vestiges of slavery to an end, Brown was only the beginning of a journey toward a society, free from discrimination, intended to recognize the equality of all citizens. The goal was to move toward a truly color blind society where all citizens are not "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
I firmly, fully and unequivocally believe that the strength of this great nation depends on the continued direction of our efforts, of our energy and of our national will towards creating a society of equals. I believe equally fervently that we are not there yet. Following the Court’s decision in Brown, children were spat upon, humiliated and beaten for trying to go to school. Blacks were left to fight for the right to equal protection on buses, at lunch counters and in the workplace, but Brown gave people faith in their government, and hope for a better future, against all odds.
The Bush administration has pronounced in its briefs in cases involving the University of Michigan that our “diverse” society has reached a point where affirmative action is not longer useful or desirable. Yet the administration favors increased spending on minority institutions. I wrote about this seemingly inconsistent position over a year ago, and not much has changed.
The lawyers who brought and argued Brown v. Board of Education (including lead counsel Thurgood Marshall) did so in an effort to change a bad law, and to give hope to the millions of people who, despite their courage and valor in defending this country, could not send their children to the same schools as the white soldiers who they fought and died with. They were successful in the sense that they changed the law, but they also gave strength, hope and dignity to their fellow citizens.
The individuals who actually ran the gauntlet of hate and indignity to make integration were the true soldiers of the civil rights movement. They were beaten, humiliated and spat upon, but they persevered. In so doing they brought down walls no less tangible and no less formidable than the Berlin wall. They are heroes in the true sense of the word.
Race still looms large in our culture. Today, white students are about twice as likely to attend private schools as black students and the percentage the whites enrolled in America’s public schools is about 60% nationwide, down 7 percentage points from a decade ago. The Bush and Benson administrations appear to want to continue this trend through their voucher programs, which will serve only to further aid in white flight from the nation’s public schools. Resegregation is the natural and logical effect.
Schools are becoming more segregated because society is still segregated. No court decision can change that. The thought of a child being spat upon and humiliated, beaten and abused because of the color of her skin sickens most of us. But until it sickens all of us, we are at war with each other. If we can dehumanize children and abuse them in this way, we are capable of all manner of inhuman behavior. There is evidence that we are currently mistreating our enemies abroad. Clearly, we need to continue the lessons of Brown, but we also need to remember that charity, humanity and compassion begin at home.
Teach your children well.