An important date in education passed last week with barely a mention. Last Tuesday, May 17, marked the 57th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.
The 1954 U. S. Supreme Court ruling was based on a lawsuit filed by the family of Linda Brown, a young African-American girl who had been denied admission to an all-White school in Topeka, Kansas. The school was seven blocks from the Brown family home; the all-Black school she was required to attend was 2-miles away. Additionally, attorneys argued, the Whites-only school was far superior to the segregated facilities intended for Black students.
Brown v. Board of Education was one of five cases the high court was asked to review in the 1950s on behalf of African-American elementary school children that challenged the constitutionality of Black schools that were said to be inferior to nearby White schools. The combined cases challenged an 1896 Supreme Court ruling,Plessy v. Ferguson, which had been used to justify segregation in schools. That ruling dealt specifically with accommodations in rail cars and claimed that separate but equal accommodations conformed to the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection.
In an opinion written by then Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown case that, not only was "separate but equal" unconstitutional, the policy dubbed an inherent badge of inferiority on African Americans.
As Warren wrote:
"To separate them [African-American schoolchildren] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone... Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, haws a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits which they would receive in a racially integrated school system."
For more background on the decision, the National Archives has set up a great website. You can find it by clicking here.
In 1979, Linda Brown Thompson was one of several plaintiffs who asked the court to re-open the Brown case. She and others contested that the Topeka School District hadn't complied with the court order to desegregate. Fourteen years later, in 1993, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the schools were still segregated.
Speaking at a gathering at the University of Michigan in 2004, Brown's sister, Cheryl Brown Henderson said, "Brown v. Board was never just about sitting next to white children - it was about sharing the same resources they had access to. Education was the down payment on freedom. Education is the down payment on opportunity."
Last week, Ricki Malone, the former principal of Seattle's now defunct African American Academy, reminded those gathered for an equity in education forum about the Brown decision. She took issue with the Seattle School District's neighborhood-based school assignment plan, calling it a modern day return to segregated schools. Malone cited statistics (from the University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Public Education) that show that a majority of Seattle's students of color attend the lowest performing schools in the district, while most of Seattle's White students attend the highest performing schools.
Linda Brown Thompson continues to live in Topeka where, along with her sister, she runs the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.