As New York City’s public schools close their doors for the summer, it’s worth noting that they are now more segregated than ever. Sadly, that’s true of public schools just about everywhere, 62 years after the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored school segregation to be unconstitutional in 1954.
Some questions we ought to ponder this summer: What will it take to bring about fairness, let alone integration, in our public schools? What sort of courage and commitment will be required? What price are we paying when we accept a divided society, separated by class and race? Are we committed to racial equality and equal educational opportunity, or are those concepts we pay lip service to, and nothing more?
The men and women who sued to end school segregation in the 1950’s paid a price. It took courage to challenge a practice that had been blessed by the United States Supreme Court, one that was written into state laws and was zealously adhered to by local traditions and zoning covenants. Here’s one story:
Harry Briggs was a garage attendant, and they fired him. And they fired another man whose name was Stookes after–he was working at a filling station also. After they fired him, he attempted to try to work in his backyard, and so he was working on a car and, not having the proper things to use for the car, he had jacked the car up on a homemade shift, and the car fell on him and killed him. And James Brown was working for a trucking company. I don’t recall the trucking company. They fired him.
And they fired teachers who they thought had signed it. My husband had two sisters working in the district. They were fired. He was fired. And I was fired. And even the parents who signed the petition, they wouldn’t let them have loans to–for their crops the following year. And of course the (white) people stopped buying groceries, some of them, and they’d even go to Sumpter and Columbia and other places to buy groceries, and they would cut off everything that they thought was helping the petitioners.
That’s what Mattie de Laine, the widow of the Reverend Joseph De Laine (who helped bring the lawsuit in Clarendon County, South Carolina), told me when I interviewed her in 1979, 25 years after the historic Brown v Board Supreme Court decision of 1954.
The negative reaction was not confined to the white community. All Sarah Bulah of Wilmington, Delaware wanted was to have the bus that took white children to school pick up her daughter, Shirley, and drop her at the Negro school. She recalled the neighborhood’s reaction:
They thought I was breaking up the community. One morning I went to see a sick lady. She say, ‘Mrs. Bulah, I’m surprised at you.’ Surprised at me, about what? ‘You saying that you wanted wanted Shirley to to go the white school because you didn’t want her going to the Negro school.’ I say, I didn’t say no such thing, just like that. She say, ‘You know, I’ve been living her 30 years, and we ain’t never had no stink until you come.’
Back then Sarah Bulah made her living selling fresh eggs. Before she joined the lawsuit, she told us she was selling about 100 dozen eggs a week at 75 cents per dozen to white families. She lost all her customers except one.
Two years ago, the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision were muted, overshadowed by the harsh reality. Although it’s no longer constitutionally permissible to segregate students by race, our public schools are more segregated today than ever in our history. As Richard Rothstein pointed out in “For Public Schools, Segregation Then, Segregation Since,” school segregation is a consequence of residential segregation, which means that housing policies become education policy. This report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project has more information about the segregation of public schools: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/news/press-releases/2014-press-releases/ucla-report-finds-changing-u.s.-demographics-transform-school-segregation-landscape-60-years-after-brown-v-board-of-education
But in addition to bemoaning our collective failures, let’s remember the brave men and women who had the courage to challenge legal school segregation, a struggle that began with a case involving the Law School at the University of Maryland in 1935 and culminated in the Court’s unanimous decision announced on May 17, 1954.
Many of the early cases attacking ‘Separate but Equal’ focused on proving that the facilities were in fact not equal. Winning these cases forced the power structure to spend more on the Negro schools, but a victory did not directly challenge the concept of segregation. Directly challenging the constitutionality of segregation meant asking the Supreme Court to overrule itself–to admit that it had been wrong in Plessy v. Ferguson. It meant asking the Court to declare that the concepts of ‘separation’ and ‘equality’ were contradictory by definition and contrary to the US Constitution.
The attorneys were undecided on this vital point right up to the last possible moment. James Nabrit, a young attorney working on the Washington, DC, case with lead attorney Thurgood Marshall and others, recalled the day the case was argued before the Court.
You know when they settled that question? The morning when Thurgood got up to argue and stood up and started talking all this stuff, and Justice Frankfurter stopped him and said, ‘Mr. Marshall, I want to ask you a question,’ and Thurgood said, ‘Yes, sir?’, and he said, ‘Are you arguing this case on the separate but equal doctrine, or are you arguing that segregation, per se, is unconstitutional? Now I want to know.’
And Thurgood turned as pale as a ghost, and the courtroom was just as quiet as the moon. And finally he said, ‘Mr. Justice Frankfurter, we are going to argue this case on the basis that segregation per se is unconstitutional.’ (1979 interview)
Richard Kluger’s “Simple Justice” remains a must-read for anyone interested in the long struggle against school segregation. Henry Hampton’s monumental documentary series, “Eyes on the Prize,” will always be the gold standard for television reportage about the Civil Rights Movement.
The U.S. Library of Congress has a permanent exhibit of documents and photographs about the Brown cases online.
Growing up, I associated the Brown decision with Topeka, Kansas, and 7-year-old Linda Brown. From Mr. Kluger’s book I learned that “Brown” included lawsuits from four other communities: Wilmington, Delaware; Washington, DC; Prince Edward County, Virginia; and Clarendon County, South Carolina.
Reading that book inspired us to revisit all five communities in 1979, the 25th Anniversary of the decision, for my NPR radio series, “Options in Education.” We met many of the plaintiffs, the ordinary men and women who were persuaded by Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, James Nabrit, Jack Greenberg and others to sign their names to the lawsuits.
Here, from the Library of Congress page, are quick descriptions of the cases, along with a few anecdotes from our 1979 NPR series.
CLARENDON COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA: “In 1949, the state NAACP in South Carolina sought twenty local residents in Clarendon County to sign a petition for equal education. The petition turned into a lawsuit and first name on the list was Harry Briggs. In preparation for the Briggs case, attorney Robert Carter returned to Columbia University to confer with Psychologist Otto Klineberg, who was known for his research on black students’ IQ scores. He sought Klineberg’s advice on the use of social science testimony in the pending trial to show the psychological damage segregation caused in black children. Klineberg recommended Kenneth Clark. Clark became the Legal Defense Fund’s principal expert witness.”
Dr. Clark, a sociologist, used dolls to measure children’s attitudes. Attorney Harold Boulware told me about it.
He had in his bag two dolls, both dressed just alike. Both with the same kind of clothes on. The only difference in the two dolls was one was white, the other was black. So he would take one or two students into his examining room, and he would ask one of the students, “I will show you two dolls. Which is the good doll, and which is the bad doll?’ The black students would point to the black doll as the bad doll.
He would ask, ‘Which is the dirty doll, and which is the clean doll?’ and the black student would point at the black doll as the dirty one.
He would ask, ‘Which is the smelly doll?’ The black doll.
‘Which is the smart doll, and which is the dumb doll?’ And the black student would point at the black doll as the dumb doll. And all the way down the line. Every time there was something bad, it was black. Everything that was a smart doll, a clean doll, a sweet smelling doll, a brilliant doll, that was white.
TOPEKA, KANSAS: “Brown v. Board of Education was filed in the U.S. District Court in Topeka, Kansas, in February 1951 and litigated concurrently with Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina. Oliver Brown, one of thirteen plaintiffs, had agreed to participate on behalf of his seven-year-old daughter Linda, who had to walk six blocks to board a school bus that drove her to the all-black Monroe School a mile away.”
Pre-Brown, public schools were supposed to be ‘Separate but Equal.’ A parent from Topeka, Kansas, remembered what ‘Equality’ was like. “I remember they had what they called a black bell, for assemblies. The bell would ring for the children to assemble in the auditorium. So they’d ring a bell, and the white children would go to assembly. Then they’d ring the second bell, which was called the nigger bell, and our children went upstairs to a separate room.”
She said the superintendent had an assistant, a Black man, whose job it was to keep the races separate. “At the high school at lunchtime, he’d go to the cafeteria, and if the Negro children were not sitting at this table, a certain table for the colored children, then he’d yank them up. “Get on down there where you belong!’”(Lucinda Todd, from a 1979 interview)
WASHINGTON, DC: “Spottswood Thomas Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe, was one of the five school desegregation cases that comprised Brown. Because the District of Columbia was not a state but federal territory, the Fourteenth Amendment arguments used in the other cases did not apply. Therefore, the lawyers argued for “Due Process Clause” of the Fifth Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection of the law. The Consolidated Parents Group initiated a boycott of the all-black Browne Junior High School in Washington. D.C., which was overcrowded and dilapidated. In 1948, Charles H. Houston was hired  to represent them in a lawsuit to make black schools more equal to white schools when Houston’s health began to fail. He recommended James Nabrit as his replacement.”
PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, VIRGINIA: “Spurred by a student strike, blacks in Prince Edward County, Virginia, called a lower federal court’s attention to the demonstrably unequal facilities in the county’s segregated high schools. … They convinced the U.S. District Court that facilities for blacks were “not substantially equal” to those for whites. The Court ordered the two systems to be made equal. However, it did not abolish segregation. Therefore, the plaintiffs appealed, and the Supreme Court heard their case along with Brown v. Board.”
In response to the Brown Decision and a court order to enforce it, Virginia passed a law in 1956 outlawing school integration. Governor Lindsay Almond, who as the state’s Attorney General had argued Virginia’s case before the Supreme Court, ordered public schools across the state to close rather than integrate, in a policy known as “Massive Resistance.”
When he closed the schools, Governor Almond made a stirring speech warning of ‘false prophets,’ ‘token integration,’ and ‘the livid stench of sadism, sex, immorality and juvenile delinquency.’ He closed with these lines: ‘We have just begun to fight. No price is too high to pay, no burden to heavy to bear.’
In 1979 I asked him about that speech. “I made a terrible mistake in making that speech, and if I’d listened to my wife I wouldn’t have made that speech. I made a mistake in making that speech.” But he added, “That’s the way I felt then.”
Defending segregation before the US Supreme Court had catapulted Mr. Almond to the State House, where, as Governor, he closed the schools across the state, but in 1959—after losing in several courts–he concluded that the state’s policy of ‘Massive Resistance” was futile and ordered schools reopened. His defiance of the state’s political machine led by US Senator Harry Byrd effectively ended Almond’s political career. Most schools reopened, but Prince Edward County kept its schools closed for five more years, until 1964!
WILMINGTON, DELAWARE: “In 1950 Louis Redding filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sarah Bulah to admit her daughter, Shirley, to a nearby white elementary school, after the Delaware Board of Education refused to allow her to board an all-white school bus that drove past their home.
In 1979, Harold Boulware, then a family court judge in Clarendon County, SC, looked back optimistically on what the Brown decision had achieved.
The Brown decision is just a drop in the bucket with regard to touching the principles of education. It touched every facet of segregation. You can get better jobs. You’ve got more money. You’ve got better facilities in every respect, not only in school facilities, but facilities we’ve got for housing, jobs. So that effort that was made back there beginning in 1938, ‘39, ‘40, was the thing that started to change the whole transition of a better day for Blacks in South Carolina and in the nation.
The last word belongs to Mattie De Laine, widow of one of the plaintiffs in South Carolina and a teacher who was fired after the lawsuit was filed:
At first I felt a little bitter when they ran us away, but when I was going on the train to New York City one morning, everybody was asleep but me. I looked out the window and it was in October and the leaves were falling and all, and it just seemed like the leaves or something were saying to me, ‘Don’t be angry with anybody, because they don’t know any better’… And believe it or not, from that time on I have had no bitterness toward anybody, not even toward those people who were shooting and who burned the house and whatnot. I don’t have any bitterness toward those people now.
- This photograph of Reverend and Mrs. De Laine is in the collection of his papers:http://digital.tcl.sc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/jad/id/893↵
- It turned out that we had bitten off more than our 4-person operation could chew when we decided to visit the five original communities AND the nation’s most segregated school system (Chicago) AND a community that had successfully integrated its schools (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina) AND the burgeoning (largely white-only) private school industry. Our 8-part series, which we called “Race against Time,” ended up airing on NPR in 1980, 26 years after Brown, not 25 as we had planned.↵It remains an indelible memory, however. You can listen to the series here: http://learningmatters.tv/blog/podcasts/listen-race-against-time-school-desegregation-since-1954-1980/12439/
- Education Week has some memories here:http://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/brown-anniversary-voices.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1 ↵
- Gardner Bishop, a Washington barber who was one of the plaintiffs, said in 1979 that Mr. Houston did not bill for his legal work. He donated his services, Mr. Bishop said. Mr. Bishop’s reverence for Charles Houston remains one of my strongest memories of the series, and spending time with him was a genuine privilege.↵
- A grateful President John Kennedy later appointed him to the Federal Bench, where he served until his death in 1986.↵