50 Years Later: Brown v. Board of Education
Our "joyous daybreak" from discrimination leads to progress and new challenges for racial justice
DECISION IN BROWN
Fifty years ago in the watershed opinion Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren, on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court, declared, "In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly described this decision as a "joyous daybreak to end the long night of enforced segregation."
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This ruling immediately outlawed many of the racist practices of some two dozen states that engaged in mandatory or permissive segregation in public education at the time. We changed as a nation, and for the better, and as a result African Americans made tremendous gains in access to education, income, and civic participation, out of which grew a generation of black middle-class and leaders in all spheres of our nation's life.
The Brown decision made America a beacon of hope to the rest of the world; it taught us that we could, through the rule of law, end a kind of oppression and race-based caste system without resorting to all-out civil war.
So why is it that on its 50th anniversary, a pall hangs over our celebration of this epochal decision?
It is because noxious racism, while no longer polite to express openly, has become harder to fight because it is now often cloaked in decorous manners and insidious language that do not openly betray ongoing discrimination. It is also due to racial isolation, poverty, unemployment, inadequate health care, and lack of opportunity, all of which serve to hamper the achievements of minority students who are increasingly found in school districts beset with these and other social ills.
The American Civil Liberties Union was a friend-of-the-court participant in the historic Brown case. We picked up that mantle in later years, first in Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of the children of Linda Brown (one of the named plaintiffs in the original Supreme Court case), and then later in places like California and Connecticut.
ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Chris Hansen was lead counsel in the reopened Brown v. Board Education case, which in the 1980's and '90's forced Kansas to honor the U.S. Supreme Court mandate to desegregate its public schools.
The goals of integration and of a more just society that inspired that earlier generation of reformers and civil rights activist continues to this day, as the ACLU fights to preserve the integration remedies that were the result of Brown. The ACLU national office and its affiliate offices around the nation have brought other cases-such as the landmark Sheff v. O'Neill case in the settlement to desegregate schools in Hartford, Connecticut - to remedy racial isolation in public schools.
Apart from the issue of school integration, the ACLU has fought for equality for all children in education, bringing cases-such as Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education and Williams v. California, by our California affiliate-to assure that predominantly minority schools that serve low-income children have the resources that they need to provide students an adequate education. Similarly, the ACLU participated in the Michigan affirmative action cases, which affirmed that race and ethnicity could be considered as factors in college admissions.
The ACLU has also embarked on other significant racial justice campaigns, filing lawsuits, publishing literature, holding workshops, and getting involved with the community in an effort to educate the public about all forms of racial profiling, from "Driving While Black or Brown" to the government's unfair treatment of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians in Post 9/11 America.
This 50th anniversary of Brown is a reminder of our duty to strive for equal educational opportunity for every child in America. It is a reminder of how far we have come -- and of how far we still have to go -- to improve education, reduce poverty, and ensure a truly diverse society with equal opportunity for all. This "joyous daybreak" must not be allowed to dim.