I’m spending the 55th anniversary week of the Brown vs. Board of Education in public schools that are probably more segregated today than they were in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregated schools were a violation of our Constitution. Of course, today’s segregation is not official, not mandated by law. Nevertheless, it remains true that the most integrated schools in our society are either private or parochial, and our nation continues to struggle with The American Dilemma of race.
In 1979, when I was working at NPR, we honored the 25th Anniversary of the decision by revisiting the five communities involved (Topeka, KS Washington, DC, Wilmington, DE, Prince Edward County, VA and Clarendon County, SC). In that 8-part series, “Race against Time,” we reported that those communities were more segregated then than they had been in 1954.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
I have some wonderful memories of interviewing the brave men and women who had the courage to bring the lawsuits, men like Gardner Bishop, a barber in Washington. Mr. Bishop was the father of a student at Browne Junior High School. In 1947 school authorities responded to crowded conditions at Browne by choosing two run-down former white primary schools for satellite classes. The school’s PTA objected and demanded that white schools be opened for all students. Distrustful of the PTA’s leadership, Bishop called on parents to boycott the school. He did this at great personal risk to himself. And note the date, 1947. It wasn’t until 1954 that his case reached the high court.
I also spent time in Clarendon County, South Carolina, in the heart of the cotton belt, where white landowners and business leaders had ruled for generations. There poor rural African Americans made a stand and asked for a school bus for their children. When the county denied their request, Harold Briggs and 19 other parents raised the stakes and demanded that their children have the right to attend white schools.
At great personal risk, Thurgood Marshall committed the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund to help this courageous community make a direct assault on legalized public school segregation. That case, Briggs v. Elliott, was filed in the United States District Court, Charleston Division in December 1950.
Richard Kluger’s monumental work, Simple Justice, remains the best history of the five cases that made their way to the Supreme Court. “Eyes on the Prize” is the best television, and our series, “Race against Time”, is, I think, the best radio.
Are we moving forward? We have a President, born after the Brown decision, who stands as a role model for education’s possibilities. People I respect here in New Orleans say they see evidence of ‘the Obama effect’ on students. Let’s pray that it’s real, and strong, and persistent.
Learn More & Explore Resources
Looking Back on Brown v. Board After 50 Years [NPR, 2004]