In the 1950s, a little black girl named Linda Brown was denied admission to an all-white public school near her home in Topeka, Kansas, and forced to walk to an all-black school farther away. Many black children of that time had to endure similar inconveniences.
Linda’s father, Oliver, was one of 13 plaintiffs who sued the Topeka Board of Education. Similar cases filed in Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware and Washington were consolidated, and Brown became the lead in a lawsuit challenging legal segregation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People backed Brown. Thurgood Marshall, later to become the U.S. Supreme Court’s first black justice, litigated the case.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision outlawing legal segregation. Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark in the nation’s struggle toward equality, reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that made the concept of “separate but equal” the law of the land.
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On Saturday, there will be seminars and celebrations across the nation honoring the ruling’s 60th anniversary.
Schools shouldn’t be separated by race as public policy. But separate schools being inherently unequal? I have a problem with that premise, especially since it applies only to all-black schools.
It was the court’s opinion that “segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprives the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunity.”
Why? That’s borderline white supremacy, even though the decision was supposed to be about equality.
Perhaps that’s why in the years after Brown, many lower courts issued some weird decrees. The requirements of nondiscrimination and public access turned into mandates to mix races in public schools. The result was forced busing, which did little to benefit black students educationally and inconvenienced them often more than the pre-Brown systems. Pinellas County schools were a good example.
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A court ruling in 1971 mandated that no school in the southern part of Pinellas could exceed more that 30 percent black enrollment, but it was OK to have all-white schools in the northern part of the county, which sent the message that a predominantly black school cannot have quality education. This silliness lasted well until the 2000s.
How silly was it?
Linda Brown’s father filed his lawsuit because he wanted his daughter to have the right to attend the elementary school near their home instead of having to travel miles away. Using the logic of the court-ordered Pinellas plan, Linda Brown still would not have been allowed to attend her neighborhood school if her body had been needed elsewhere to achieve “racial balance” within the school district. I remember a local news station doing a story on three young black boys in south St. Petersburg, lifelong friends who lived on the same block but had to go to three separate schools to meet court-ordered quotas.
What civil rights litigators and many federal judges lost track of was the difference between desegregation and integration. All that was required after Brown was the elimination of dual education systems. Once that was done, all courts needed to do was to ensure that blacks and whites were treated equally. Too many school desegregation plans departed from the simple goal of removing all vestiges of state-enforced segregation to seek integration for integration’s sake.
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Today there are many majority-black schools, but the so-called achievement gap that persists has nothing to do with how many white kids black students come in contact with. It could even be argued that most of the problems contributing to today’s disparities lie beyond the schools.
Ten years ago at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brown, actor/comedian Bill Cosby shocked the crowd with a speech that took poor blacks to task for not taking education seriously, among other pathologies. (I doubt if he’ll be invited to any events this time around.) He then asked, “What good is Brown if nobody wants it?”
After the celebrations, that’s the challenge ahead for those who want to fulfill Brown’s promise of an equal education for every child.