The More Things Change: Brown v. Board 55 Years Later

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.Brown v. Board

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

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954 – 1985 [PBS Program]

Looking Back on Brown v. Board After 50 Years [NPR, 2004]

Separate is Not Equal, A Teacher’s Curriculum Guide [Website]

5 thoughts on “The More Things Change: Brown v. Board 55 Years Later

  1. Hello John

    Since we work a lot in the little towns in the southeast that were at the heart of the civil rights struggles in the 1960’s, I think often about what the Brown decision means. In too many of the places we work, whites fled the schools two generations ago and are not coming back. They are the biggest supporters of vouchers and tax credits in places like South Carolina. Local schools in the rural south are often starved for resources and then blamed for being ineffective.

    I see everyday heroes in these towns just like the ones who brought the original school desegregation cases. They fight for a better life for their kids. And last Fall they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama—tiny dark blue dots in red states. Like you I hope that the audacity of their hope is rewarded.

    For me, a white woman from a de jure state, West Virginia, the Brown decision not only changed the demographics of my classrooms from 1956 on but changed the trajectory of my life. I had a ringside seat in the school desegregation battles in Ohio, got called a lot of unpleasant names, raised my kids in integrated schools in integrated neighborhoods and learned, changed churches to be in a diverse one, learned the lessons of never ending struggle for equality and opportunity for poor children with Marian Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, and now am leading an organization that is focused on those places in the south that have yet to complete the civil rights revolution.

    So on May 17, I’ll say my quiet thanks to the heroes of yesterday and today and hope that the arc of history bends ever more quickly toward justice.



  2. John – I too hope the Obama effect is real and lasting, but it would seem unlikely to me, unless we seize the moment and provide a matching, energetic and innovative wave of reform in education. At some point, the Obama effect is going to collide with the NCLB effect, and the test-prep mania that has spawned narrowed and scripted curricula will let this kids down. Emotion is a flimsy and volatile pillar on which to build one’s hopes, but with a high-quality education to go with it, then we’ll see progress. Hope, yes – but commitment? That’s what I’m waiting to see from the people in power – commitment to a vision that goes beyond data and standardization.


  3. John:

    I find that I am no more enthralled by the work of the current administration in the area of public education than in the case of past administrations. It became crystal clear to me many years ago that the ever declining standards in education with regard to basic skills was impossible to check until there is a clear national crisis in education and it is obvious that our educational system is no longer even remotely competitive with that of other nations.

    No national governmental administration in my memory has done anything substantive about this problem and I am not convinced that national legislation in this area will “cure” the problem. Until the American family, on an average, is more functional and until families make education a priority, we will continue down what I see as a steep decline curve. All of the sops on the political level do almost nothing to prevent this trend.

    Ask yourself the question “why do Asian Americans score so highly on virtually every standardized test? It is because their family structures are stable, they value education and they generate high expectations of their children. Why do the children of intact families tend to excel in colleges as compared to those families which are dysfunctional? The answer seems to me obvious. One of my bosses did a brief study on this subject and while it was limited to one small, private college I believe it was indicative. When two parents are on the same page and provide consistent feedback, children tend to thrive academically. This has less to do with dollars spent per pupil or “innovative” programs and more to do with the essential nurturing of a supportive family. This does not mean, of course, that we should stop spending money on our educational system nor does it mean that children of fractured families cannot thrive.

    As you well know, we are already asking too much of our schools when it comes to providing social services to substitute for absent fathers or drug abusing mothers. Schools are not equipped to provide these functions and they do so at the expense of basic education.

    As the current administration performs a constant testing of the political winds, I am not optimistic about their having energy or resources for education. Indeed, with the virtual explosion of VERY expensive programs for health care, alternative energy and most certainly economic recovery, I do not see much remaining for education. In my humble opinion, the nasty inflation I see coming will rob our entire society of options in education and elsewhere.



  4. Brown moved us forward in terms of access to schools. But sadly, we are not moving forward in the education of all children. NCLB has “re-racialized” education. In a well-meant but deeply misguided attempt to do away with the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, President Bush et al merely gave an institutionally racist system an officially sanctioned low bar to throw kids over. I had a recent discussion with an Asst Supt (just like dozens of others I’ve had) where she admitted quite candidly that all they intended to do for black and hispanic children was “get them over that first hump” by which she was referring to the minimum standard for passing her state’s tests, standards so low they bare little relation to getting into college or getting a decent job. Brown did its job and got schools open to all, but current reforms have undone Brown’s intent of equal education for all. Now it’s high standards for some kids and minimum standards for the rest.




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