Brown v. Board of Education: Fifty Years Later

Reprinted from the Seattle Times Sunday, May 16, 2004.
by M. Lee Pelton, Willamette University President

M. Lee PeltonFifty years ago on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. At the time of the high court's decision, I was a four-year old African-American kid from a working class family in Wichita, Kansas.

I would enter kindergarten in the fall.

I lived on a street that divided two distinct neighborhoods: poor African-Americans to the south and middle-class whites to the north. Many of the houses in the African-American neighborhood were what we then called "shot-gun" houses: that is, standing in the front yard with the front and back doors opened, you could fire a shot gun clean through the house to the back yard. Most of the kids in this part of my neighborhood came from families of laborers like my father, who worked as a butcher at a meat packing plant and like my mother, who cleaned houses for middle class and rich white families.

My father and mother attended segregated public schools. After Brown I had a choice that neither of my parents had growing up: rather than attend the segregated African-American school several miles to the south, I could attend the white school a short three blocks to the north - a school segregated except for four cousins who entered a year before me.

This was an easy decision 50 years ago: my parents sent me to the white school because of its better facilities and fewer students per classroom. However, during my elementary school years, each school remained de facto segregated - one overwhelmingly white and the other overwhelmingly African-American.

Today, the African-American elementary school no longer exists, and the white school that I attended is predominantly Latino.
Every 25 years since the Brown decision, the Supreme Court has taken up - almost like clockwork - a case involving race and education, the outcome of which has served as a touchstone of fundamental American democratic values.

In 1978, Allan Bakke, a white student twice denied admission to the University of California. Davis Medical School, sued the University on the grounds that the preference given to minority applicants disadvantaged white applicants, thereby violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The court, in a divided opinion, invalidated the UC Davis' admissions quota system but, at the same time, seemed to uphold affirmative action and the use of race as one factor in considering applicants. (Bakke v. Regents of University of California).

Twenty five years later in the summer of 2003 in two cases involving the University of Michigan, the court, speaking through Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, decisively ruled 6 - 3 that diversity is a compelling national interest and that affirmative action may be used in the college admissions process to achieve diversity, as long as the methods of doing so are "narrowly tailored" (Grutter v. Bollinger).

The ancestral lineage from Brown the University of Michigan is clear and distinct. In both instances, the court affirmed that public educational institutions - secondary and post-secondary alike - have an obligation to ensure that "the path to leadership ... [is]... open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." (Gutter v. Bollinger)

The court first heard oral arguments for Brown in December 1952. (Brown was actually a consolidated case involving five school districts in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Kansas and the District of Columbia; the cases were known as Brown because it appeared first in the alpha listing.) The court was deeply divided over the issue and it, therefore, took the very unusual step of ordering a re-argument for October 1953 in the hopes of attaining a unanimous decision or, at the very least, one that would inspire confidence and broad support for the its ruling.

However, a month before the second re-argument was to take place, Chief Justice Fred Vinson unexpectedly died - providentially, some would say later - from a heart attack. President Dwight Eisenhower, whose own views on desegregation were conflicted, appointed as the new chief justice, a man not known for the strength of his judicial intellect: Earl Warren, a career politician and former governor of California.

So it was that Warren was sworn in as the nation's 14th chief justice in the fall of 1953 after the court's consideration of Brown had already begun and a mere four weeks before the decisive re-argument was scheduled to take place.

Most interesting is that when he was California's attorney general, Warren had demanded the internment of more than 100,000 West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II. In fact, he had been a member of an anti-Asian organization, the Native Sons of the Golden West.

And yet it was Warren who persuasively championed the Court to unanimously rule an end to segregated public schools, and it was he who read from the bench the now famous lines that constitutionally annihilated the separate but equal doctrine that had been the law of the land since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place... separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Justice Felix Frankfurter, not known as a very religious man, later called the timeliness of Vinson's death as "the first indication that I have ever had that there is a God."

In a unanimous opinion, the court wrote language that forever connects the desegregation of public education with the use of affirmative action in the admissions policies of colleges and universities:

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments... It is required in the performance of our most basic public society. It is the foundation of good citizenship... In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

Fifty years later certain memories stand out: My best friend in elementary school was a white boy who lived in the white neighborhood where I went to school. I recall playing football on Thanksgiving in the fresh, new Kansas snow - he was a pretend Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts quarterback, and I was a pretend Lenny Moore, the all-star running back. And though we walked to school together, I was never allowed by his parents to set foot inside of his house.

I recall being chased home across the school playground by my principal, Mrs. Zimmerman, who seemed to my young imagination an exact replica of the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. I can no longer remember the affront that triggered this event, but I remember that she never took kindly to the idea of an integrated school or to a young African-American kid who seemed to outshine all of the other kids. The next day my mother, my grandmother and Aunt Lizzie, three strong-minded African-American women, walked resolutely to school - with me in tow - to confront her bigotry.

I learned many lessons - not all of which the court probably had in mind when it desegregated the nation's public schools.

I learned from an early age what it means to be the only dark face in a sea of white faces. I learned what it takes to be the best when the expectations of teachers, students and others lean entirely in another direction. I learned what it means to be the "first" African-American "this" or "that." I learned the burden - imposed, in part, by whites and people of color alike - for me and others like me to represent in our life and work not only our own private hopes and dreams, but also the hopes and dreams of an entire race of dark-skinned people.

Brown's legacies are many, and they are powerful.

Brown represents the convergence of two compelling movements: one legal, the other social. As important as Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott are in our nation's history, the civil rights movement really commences with Brown. Brown began the long process of legally unraveling a nation of separate parks, hospitals, public transportation, water fountains, public restrooms, libraries, hotels, restaurants, theaters, and cemeteries - not only in the South, but in the North as well. It laid the legal foundation on which other forms of discrimination have been eliminated.

We are a better and a stronger nation because of Brown.

And yet, at times, it seems that for every step forward that we have taken since Brown, we take two steps back.

There is good news in higher education: when I entered college in the mid-70's, nearly 87 percent of college students in the United States were white, about 9 percent African-American and the combined total of Asian American, Native Americans and others less than 3 percent. And, yet, today, nearly 28 percent of those participating in higher education are persons of color.

By contrast, the news in public secondary education is less encouraging: public schools are re-segregating themselves. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University reports that the average white student attends schools where more than 80 percent of the students are white and less than 20 percent of the students are other racial and ethnic groups. A total of 70 percent of the nation's African-American students now attend predominantly minority schools - a significant increase from the low point of 63 percent in 1980.

The report goes on to say that "the vast majority of intensely segregated minority schools face conditions of concentrated poverty, which are powerfully related to unequal educational opportunity. Students in segregated minority schools can expect to face conditions that students in the very large number of segregated white schools seldom experience." Those conditions include more school violence, less per capita spending and, in many cases, lower academic standards and expectations.

By the year 2050, there will be no majority "race" in America. Even today, the big question is whether or not it is possible to sustain the vision from which Brown emerged in an America that is radically different from America 50 years ago.

In many respects, the world, 50 years later, is topsy-turvy.

Consider, for example, a San Francisco school district, in which there is no majority and in which some groups, such as Chinese-Americans, fiercely resist an integration plan that buses its school age children many miles away, denying them access to their neighborhood schools close by. Similarly, African-American families in large urban inner cities, like Boston and Chicago, challenge court-ordered busing in favor of revitalized but highly segregated neighborhood schools. In these instances, how do we reconcile the competing claims of families of color against the integrationist vision of satisfying a public good - a public good hard won 50 years ago with much sweat and many tears?

What shall we do? There are, of course, no easy answers.

Yet, I believe that we must re-construct public education, our schools and our communities on behalf of democracy in an America that no longer seems simply black and white, but increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic. In doing so, we protect the legacy of Brown and its role in defining social justice and equality in America.