Brown v. Board Made It to 64. But How Much Longer Will It Survive?

It’s been 64 years this week since Brown v. Board Of Education began charting a new course for public schools and race in America. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court struck down the dishonest doctrine of “separate but equal” and exposed the white supremacy that lay beneath it. 

Yet, the celebration this year is muted by a fresh sense of uncertainty. The sanctity of the landmark decision that helped ensure Black children’s full and equal access to participation in American society is increasingly under attack in the courts, in government, and in the private sphere. 

Although there has always been some level of disagreement about what Brown means and exactly what it requires, its vital importance in American jurisprudence has been firm. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, an incrementalist and certainly a racist by today’s standards, eventually admitted of the decision: “… there can be no question that the judgment of the court was right.” 

Indeed, Brown has for decades been given its due respect by people on all sides of the aisle — until now. Wendy Vitter, nominee for the United States District Court in Louisiana, for one, refused to express an opinion on whether Brown was correctly decided, sparking widespread media coverage. 

Vitter’s refusal to endorse the Brown decision stands alongside many years of indications that the nation has lost sight of the case’s importance. In overruling the late 19th-century case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregation in Louisiana streetcars, the Supreme Court did more than just address who sat next to whom in American schools. It also served as the inspiration for efforts to end restrictions in public accommodations and in housing and to assure access to the voting booth. 

Brown’s significance also went beyond the nation’s borders. During the 1950s, the United States was embroiled in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. While U.S. leaders correctly saw Soviet forces as enemies of freedom, the world was watching as America hypocritically enforced the cruelties of apartheid on even its youngest citizens. 

The Truman Administration laid the dilemma out plainly: “The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries.” By addressing school segregation through Brown, the United States addressed the dissonance between its desire to be seen as a proponent of human rights and its denial of those rights to the descendants of people it had enslaved. 

After a period of fierce resistance to integration, Brown catalyzed progress in desegregating schools in the southern states, the sites of most of the early school desegregation cases. But enforcement of the order finding that segregation had harmed Black children “in a way unlikely ever to be undone” has been difficult. In recent years, court decisions have eroded the hard-fought progress in the South spurred by the Brown decision six decades ago. For example, researchers studied more than 200 school districts that were released from court-ordered desegregation plans between 1991 and 2008 and found them more likely to have increased segregation than schools that stayed under court oversight. 

Up North, segregation continues to be a reality in far too many schools as well, and groups like the Pacific Legal Foundation would like to keep it that way. The law firm is bringing a challenge to remedies in the ACLU lawsuit Sheff v. O’Neill, a groundbreaking, decades-long case that has reduced racial segregation in public schools in Hartford, Connecticut, and has become a model for desegregation efforts across the country. To protect the legacy and future of the community’s school integration efforts, the ACLU earlier this month joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and the Center for Children’s Advocacy in filing a motion to intervene. 

From the threats to reverse the hard-fought gains in the Hartford area, to the white fear that summons police to detain innocent Black people in a Starbucks, it’s clear that Brown’s vision of a country where everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, can enjoy equal access to spaces has yet to be realized. 

Sixty-four years after Brown, the world is again watching to see whether the United States will walk the walk of equality that it has talked about, but ignored, for so long. History will judge us by our courts’ willingness and each of our efforts to ensure that children suffering the harmful consequences of segregation will get the same opportunities to learn as their white peers. This is the time to work toward true equality and justice. It’s not the time to roll back the progress that America has made – and has the potential to make — thanks to Brown

View comments (7)
Read the Terms of Use

Dr. Timothy Leary

How has Brown v. Board Of Education helped the academic standings of children in America ?

Anonymous

The Separate but equal doctrine established by the Supreme Court in 1896 violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment because it denied African Americans an equal education by confining them to an environment that wasn't by any standards "equal." Furthermore, the doctrine not only hindered the ability for children to get an equal education but also damaged their self-esteem which caused them to feel inferior to persons of the Caucasian race. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was one of the most important court cases in American history because it forced the nation to restructure because the court struck down all segregation laws as unconstitutional.

Dennis D Parker

Although there is substantial research that shows that diversity in schools has a host of positive benefits for all children, I think it is a mistake to view Brown as a case that was aimed at raising student achievement. Eliminating school segregation is not the cure all for every education question. It is still important to think about the full range of ways that students are prevented from realizing their potential by being denied equal educational opportunity. It will always be important to make sure that resources are provided fairly in order to meet the needs of students. It will always be important to assure that experienced teachers are available to all students. That will be the case no matter what the racial composition of individual schools are. But Brown was important in a way that cannot be measured solely by looking at things like test scores or graduation rates. Brown looked at the issue of segregation in schools as part of a broader American problem, one in which segregation was not a benign fact driven by choice but was instead a systemic result of hundreds of years of white supremacy and a denial of the equality of black students. As such, the decision played a pivotal role in examining the way that our history and our present situation negatively impacts our society and operates to the detriment of every person in the country.

Anonymous

Anonymous, have you considered how the message that children of color need white kids around to succeed might be affecting their self-esteem?

Anonymous

Brown v the Board of Education wasn't just supposed to put black children n classrooms with white children. The end result was supposed to be that black children would get an equivalent education to white children and use it to get out of poverty. It has failed to do that from decades so should it survive? Or should we go back to the drawing board and try something else? Only in the US Public Schoool System do we keep things around that fail consistently for decades.

Dr G. Whiting

What is amazing in your last comment anon. Is that you fail, as many others, to understand that America NEVER fully gave the Brown v. Board decision a chance to succeed. History and data (not me) will show that it took the US government declaring martial law to enforce the decision.
European Americans (aka white people) across the Nation fought tooth and nail and did everything they could to delay, deny, and disrupt the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Even when racist ideology could not keep “those” children out - racist teaching and poor curriculum was planned (See book Mothers of Mass Resistance).
There was, in fact, a brief period of time in recent history called “busing.” Mind you busing didn’t get into full swing until the 1970s - a full decade and a half after the ruling. This flash in the pan of history was considered by most European Americans as “forced” busing. It was not uncommon to hear those folks say “we don’t want those N’s in OUR schools” or “Near OUR daughter”, or “watering down OUR education.” And then began to create their own private schools. This was in the late 1960s and was appropriately called “White flight” And it wasn’t just the South. See I was in high school during the busing era in Boston. I recall having bricks thrown at my bus. Being called a nigger as we drove to sporting events on Roslindale, South and East Boston. I was a teenager. I didn’t want anything but an education. I really didn’t care if I sat next to a European American or Native American or ANY other group. I just wanted to learn.
Consider today more than 90% of school teachers are female. And in most cities over 80+% are European Americans. The teacher’s sole purpose is to engage, excite, and teach students. Unfortunately for most teachers in the 70’s, as today, where not/ are not taught in their academic training programs how to create relationships with kids who come from different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.
Brown v. Board was the outcome of more than 20 years of research and test cases first at the University level all conducted by Charles Hamilton Houston and his great legal mind and scholars. Its culmination was Brown v. Board of Education he didn’t live to see one of his greatest students And later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall bring it home.
That 1954 decision wasn’t enforced until the 70s and just 18 years after national busing began (1988-90) the country saw its smallest gaps in achievement between all students. That was the real Raison d’être of Brown. And believe it or not European American children’s grades didn’t fall.
Then for no other reason than Americans taking their eye off the ball and proclaiming we don’t need mandatory busing any longer the divides and divisions began to show.
In the early 1990s author Johnathan Kozol reported in this book “Savage Inequalities” about the Dilapidated schools conditions that many children of color had to attend. Twenty years later Kozol’s sequel “Shame of the Nation: Apartheid Schooling in America” again calls our attention to how far in the wrong direction this rich Nation has gone when he says and the data beat this out: That we are nearly as segregated today as we were in the year before the Brown versus Board of Education decision.
So the landmark decision was a righteous one. The implementation, the fighting, the “Segregation now Segregation forever” manta is what came before Brown, It fought against Brown, and lives in the scared, narrow, racist hearts of too many today.
This is a Nation of immigrants who stole and killed the indigenous population in the process. It enslaved men women and children for centuries. It grew strong on the backs the this generations children’s great- great-grandparents, great-grandparents, grandparents, and now feels overburdened because the parents of these children want equity, and happiness for their children. Some real self reflection is what is needed. As one of my favorite philosophers said. And I am paraphrasing him here. When you tuck your child into bed tonight. Be thankful for their toes, fingers, and health. Whisper I love you in their ear. Give them a big hug and a kiss on the forehead. And before you turn off the light image they where Black or another beautiful child of color. Wanna truly make America great? Invest more in education than in war. Invest more in training children to be productive members of society not members of gangs and prisons. Equity now equity forevermore!!

Snow Parrott

Self-contained special education classrooms provide segregated spaces for kids with disabilities to be separated from their typical peers, despite Brown vs Board of Education and the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in the federal law Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Stay Informed