Brown v. Board of Education: Message for the Future

Brown v. Board of Education: Message for the Future

Lynn Walker Huntley // Reprinted from On the Right Side of History: Lessons from Brown (Carter, Egerton, et al., 2004)

In honor of the upcoming 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) is proud to reprint the 2004 essay by Lynn Walker Huntley, president emeritus of SEF. Both the thoughtful analysis and sentiment of this piece continue to resonate years later as we reflect on how Brown V. Board will inform the future of equity in the schools our students attend.

“I can still remember walking past the red brick schoolhouse in my grandparents’ hometown, Moundville, West Virginia. It had a paved playground and a coveted swing and slide set that I, at 6 years old, wanted to play on. But my parents had warned me that I was never to go into that schoolyard, and so, quiet as a bird, each day I walked past that schoolhouse that seemed so big to a child so small, and went instead into the little run-down wooden building that was 'our' school.
Our school—reserved exclusively for Black people, although I did not know it at the time—was the same old, one-room building that my father and his brothers and sisters had attended generations before. It had battered wooden desks that had seated many restless young people over the years. It had a blackboard at the front, a large potbellied coal stove, scarred, rough-hewn floorboards, and little else. Our books were torn and dirty. Our devoted but tired teacher, Ms. Ethel McClendon, taught children in grades 1 to 8. Though she was caring, everything else about the school shouted “second-class.
I did not understand why I couldn’t go to that other school. In 1953, when I began first grade, I don’t suppose that I understood that I was “Black” and the children who attended the other school were “White.” Racial terms can be so confusing to a child whose innocence does not attribute meaning to skin color. But the society into which I was born had rules, and one of the rules was that children like “me” were not allowed to be with children like “them.” In 1954, I was one of the children whose rights to equal education opportunity were adjudicated by the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.“
-Lynn Huntley

The 50-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the case that broke the legal spine of racial segregation in public education, provides a fitting occasion to cast eyes back on the past in order to understand and harvest its many lessons in mind. Looking back is not something that many Americans like to do, particularly when the subject is race, racism, segregation, and discrimination. Many of us, especially, but not only Whites, would prefer to turn blind eyes to a national history that denied systematically equal rights to Black people longer than it has granted them access to such rights. Race is still a raw nerve in America.

At an early age, my life was marked by race. I carry around inside every day memories of the hurt, anger, frustration, and bewilderment that I felt as a child because of a social order that sought to pin a badge of inferiority on my breast and that of others like me. I do not have the luxury of forgetting. My life experiences and concerns for family and friends whom I hold dear and all others who will live after we are gone force me to look at the past with unhooded eyes.

In this short essay, I share personal thoughts about Brown and the lessons that the decision and its aftermath proffer for all who aspire to promote equity and excellence in education today. How are we doing in our pursuit of that aim? What does the future portend? Why is it important to reduce education inequality?

Lessons from Brown

Let us begin by remembering what should be now familiar: 1n 1954, racial segregation in virtually all aspects of life in the South was the order of the day. In Southern states, there was no bar on discrimination against or exclusion of Blacks from places of public accommodation or facilities, employment, housing, or voting. The idea of “equal enjoyment of rights and benefits of citizenship” for Blacks was alien to many, if not most, Whites. “Whites only” signs were ubiquitous. Violence to keep Blacks in “their place” was an expectation, a fact of life. Force and intimidation, formal and informal, created and sustained structural and interpersonal inequality between Whites and Blacks.

Many Whites at that time believed, perhaps earnestly, that Blacks lacked the intellectual capacity to be anywhere other than at the bottom of the social, political, and economic ladder. Such beliefs were, of course, convenient for those who benefited from the cheap, exploitable, and accessible Black labor pool created and perpetuated by lack of education and discrimination.

There must be something very appealing to some folks about being able to feel “better” than someone else. Maybe, for all of those fear- and hate-filled folks, feeling “better” than or essentially “different” from others is the only way they can feel content with their own stations in life or numb themselves to the fundamental injustice all around them. In 1954, the world was filled with many White people who did not feel diminished by the social, economic, and racial exclusion and segregation evident in our neighborhoods, workplace, church place, or schools.

Black people, by way of contrast, have always had an aspiration to be “free,” to be treated fairly, to be upwardly mobile, and to be recognized for the gifts and the contributions they have made and aspire to make to the commonweal. Whether manifest during slavery through furtive efforts to learn how to read, revolts, running away from captivity via the Underground Railroad, or the sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, appeals to conscience, or lawsuits of later years, Blacks have always sought to create better lives for themselves and their posterity. For years preceding Brown, Black women and men—washer women, maids, laborers, doctors, farmers, mechanics, preachers, teachers, barbers—waged a solitary battle through fits and starts to gain fair treatment for themselves and their community. Some lost their lives through lynching and other atrocities. Others lost their jobs or their homes, but they stood up against overwhelming force to try to change their circumstances. They made many sacrifices. Their courage changed the actual scheme of things.

That the yearning of Blacks for freedom and equality, rooted in religion and culture, was largely invisible to those in power before, after, or at the time of Brown, or left out of the pages of history books, does not mean that it does not now exist. The Black struggle for civil rights in the United States was and is part of a global struggle for human rights being waged by oppressed people of all stripes and phenotypes everywhere. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa reminds us:

``No matter how long and how repressive…unjust and undemocratic rule turns out to be, the urge for freedom remains a subversive element threatening the overthrow of rigid repression... . Freedom will break out. People are made for it just as plants tend toward the light and toward the water.``

Once, when I worked at a Wall Street law firm for a summer, one partner asked me—I believe with all good intentions—“What do Black people want?” Well, we want what all people want and should have—full respect for and enjoyment of our human rights and dignity. And we will work as long as it takes to gain unequivocal acknowledgement of our equality to all other members of the human species.

Responding to such collective aspirations, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, and other lawyers, some White, some Black, developed a “test case” strategy designed to see whether the courts, the branches of government charged with protecting the rights of vulnerable and unpopular groups, would live up to their appointed duties. With clear eyes, big hearts, large intellects, and great determination, these lawyers and their clients led the effort in the courts to make real the lofty promise of justice inscribed in the U.S. Constitution.

The noble story—of Black people pursuing their rights and social justice; of courageous White allies willing to stand up against peers on support of fairness; of lawyers using their intellect to break down a web of racially oppressive laws, attitudes and practices; of social scientists using their skills to document the causes and consequences of education inequality; and of judges taking seriously their responsibilities to uphold the Constitution—is the backdrop for the Brown decision.

In that decision, written in response to Thurgood Marshall’s plaint during oral argument—“Why of all the multitudinous people of this country (do) you have to single out the Negro and afford him this separate and unequal treatment,” the high court wrote:

``To separate them (Blacks) 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.``

The court was responding to the evidence put before it by plaintiffs to demonstrate that separate can never be equal. Plaintiffs sought to establish that segregation had negative consequences on African Americans and had deprived them of benefits that they would receive in racially integrated schools.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, the language of Brown seems somewhat stilted and dated, and so it is. The reasoning that the court felt comfortable in adopting reflects the prevailing mores at the time.

I also knew this: When I went to segregated schools because I had no choice, I felt strongly that I was being treated unfairly because I knew that I was the equal of any White student or person. I knew that the “powers that be” considered people of my hue as their “inferiors.” I knew that the schools Blacks attended were not well appointed as those populated by Whites. I knew that most Whites saw Black people as “second-class.”

Fortunately, I had parents who helped me avoid internalizing feelings of inferiority or feeling personally devalued or unworthy. I also had proud Black teachers who impressed upon their students the message that we could do anything anyone else could do. We were encouraged to compete against the prevailing racial stereotype of who we were and what we were about.

I attended Fisk, a historically Black university, for two years. At the Southern Education Foundation where I work today, through our programs to help historically Black colleges “stand and prosper,” we see clearly the tremendous contributions that these institutions make to educational excellence and access. They are part of the solution to contemporary patterns of educational inequality from which Blacks continue to suffer. They promote high self-valuation and encourage their students to “shine.” They are places where self-confidence is nurtured and, indeed, enhanced.

Lack of self-esteem does not have to attend racially segregated education, but it may. For many Black students without the advantages that I enjoyed, I am sure that the inferior surroundings in which they are schooled do create feelings of inferiority and devaluation. Internalized oppression is a real illness that affects more Black people than we wish to acknowledge.

Seeing how “stony the path we have trod” has been and looking at the unpaved roads ahead, it is tempting to some to say that Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues were misled when they sought to integrate public education. It does not matter, revisionist students of history now proclaim, whether schools are “racially identifiable” or de facto segregated. As one activist said recently, “Segregation isn’t the problem. The problem today is education quality. My Black doesn’t have to sit next to a White child to learn.”

With all due respect, this heartfelt sentiment misses the point. People should give Thurgood Marshall and others of that era more credit for having common sense. Marshall and many others involved in Brown had attended racially segregated schools. They had developed minds, so they knew that “a Black child doesn’t have to sit next to a White child to learn.” But they also knew, given the imbalance of power between Whites and Blacks at that time, that the only way to ensure that Black children would have equal or fair access to the same education as White children was if they were all in the same classroom together. The Brown case was an effort to ensure a fair result—better access to quality education for Black children—and the theories put forth in the case were designed to achieve that end.

Though not advanced as the centerpiece of the litigation, Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues knew that racial segregation stunts the growth and humanity of Whites living in a bubble of false superiority. While the court focused on the damage to Black children created by enforced racially segregated public education, the lawyers and litigants in Brown knew that there were educational and social benefits that would flow from integrated schools: enlivened and broadened inter-group understanding, erosion of stereotypes, resistance to the irrationality of racism, and new venues for Black and White young people to look at each other up close and with fresh eyes. The young Black people who integrated the schools in the aftermath of the decision, who walked stoically through ugly crowds, who endured isolation in the classroom and the disdain of their White peers, who kept their eyes on the prize, were goodwill ambassadors from the Black community to people of conscience everywhere. Their example over time changed lots of hearts and minds.

As a methodological matter, it is difficult to establish definitively the impact of integrated education on the levels of individual student achievement. Clearly, many factors contribute to learning—concentrated poverty of affluence, teacher quality, supportive services, and parental involvement, among them. There is a growing body of research that finds that overall levels of Black student achievement are enhanced, at least according to standardized measures, through attendance at integrated elementary and secondary schools. Is this due to access to better teachers and facilities or throwing off the shackles of segregation itself? I suspect both and more.

Of course, we all know that the battle to desegregate the schools of the South—and the North, for that matter—was hard fought. As we mark the 50-year anniversary of Brown, huge numbers of Whites have abandoned the South’s public education system. These students are now in “segregation academies” or predominantly White private schools. Class disparities, segregated housing patterns, demographics, and judicial decisions have paved the way for the “racially identifiable” public schools that continue to dot the South’s landscape, indeed dominate it.

What would our nation’s or region’s public education system be if, rather from fleeing from it, Whites had stayed in it—with their superior economic and political power and access? What would happen today if, rather than talking about educational triage through voucher or transfer programs or charter schools, there was a genuine shared, broad-based public commitment to having the finest public elementary and secondary school system possible for all children?

At the time Brown was decided, few could have foreseen how much many Whites would resist desegregation. Indeed, this hurt and bitterness is at the core of the deep disappointment among many Blacks when the conversation turns to school integration. After all of the sacrifices, so many Whites apparently continue to harbor the same old fears, prejudices, and predilections. Tired of efforts to effect transformation and filled with a desire to protect children from long commutes to or maltreatment in desegregated schools, many Black people are looking back to a mythical past and imagining the “good ole’ days.” Well, I understand the inclination, but to quote the vintage comedian Moms Mabley: “I was there in the good ole’ days. Where was they at?”

Brown ushered in an era of social transformation that emboldened Blacks and their allies to press for and achieve passage of landmark legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It encouraged the growth of a public interest bar that even today works to address problems of poverty, race, and inequality in law and related policy. It sparked the interest of researchers and others eager to understand the “two nations” that comprise the United States. Brown helped to break the conspiracy of silence that surrounds matters racial. It opened up schools—elementary, secondary, and higher—to Blacks and other students who now comprise the “diversity” said by the U.S. Supreme Court, in its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, to have educational value.

Brown contributed to the growth of a better-educated Black middle class that, in its own way, seeks to broaden opportunity for its sons and daughters and others still stuck at the bottom of the ladder. It contributed—at least episodically, depending upon where one looks—to the use of public funds for restorative and compensatory purposes to help improve the educational, social, and political fortunes of poor people, immigrants, women, Latinos, Asians, and other “minority groups.” Brown fostered a new wave of activism, a new consciousness, a new social order, a new value system, and new coalitions of shared interest that are helping the nation, in ways large and small, to live up to its egalitarian promise.

Though the current system of public education in the United States is fraught with problems, let us not forget those who over the past 50 years received a fairer, better chance to develop their talents and emancipate themselves from poverty, and who are now helping shape and lead efforts to improve and enhance education quality and access. Let us not forget the teachers, education administration, nonprofit leaders, philanthropies, public policy-makers, business leaders, clergy, community leaders, ordinary folk, and lawyers—everyone who has since Brown brought us thus far along the way.

Hope is a fragile thing in this world. It is important to celebrate victories. Let us take hope for tomorrow in light of all that has been overcome in the past.

Education Today

During the Brown era, attention was appropriately focused on the racial composition of schools. Today, school integration cases may be found in the courts, but as borne out by data, such cases are a dying breed. Always resisted by White-dominated school districts, irate parents—White and Black—irritated school officials, and judges reluctant to get involved, school integration cases were often winnable on straightforward evidence related to enrollment and/or employment patterns. Fashioning workable remedies, however, was problematic 50 years ago and today. What are the best ways to promote integration? Busing—voluntary or compulsory? Magnet schools—to what end and pursuant to what criteria should students be admitted? How much integration will suffice?

After many years of litigation, the courts have effectively closed the door on many, if not most, public elementary and secondary school-focused integration cases. By holding that inter-district remedies that take housing patterns into account are impermissible and devising criteria through which school districts that had previously been declared “dual” and race-based can now be found to be “unitary,” the courts have seriously reduced the power and impact of such litigation.

These developments notwithstanding, the education status of Black people has improved demonstrably since Brown. Consider the following data published by the U.S. Census Bureau in a special edition to commemorate the Brown anniversary:

  • Sixty-nine percent of Black children ages 5 and 6 were enrolled in school in 1954. In 2002, 96 percent of Black children were enrolled in school.
  • Twenty-four percent of young Black adults ages 18 and 19 were enrolled in school in 1954. In 2002, the comparable figure was 58 percent.
  • There were 926,000 Black high school students in 1955. In 2002, there were 2.6 million.
  • Fifteen percent of Blacks ages 25 and older were at least high school graduates in 1952; by 2002, this figure had risen to 79 percent.
  • In 1957, 1.6 million Blacks 25 years old and older had a high school diploma. This number had risen to 16 million by 2002.
  • Also, in 1957, 252,000 Blacks had at least a bachelor’s degree. By 2002, 3.5 million Blacks had at least such a degree.
  • There were 155,000 Black college students in 1955. By 2002, this number had risen to 2.3 million.

These figures do not reveal the degree of disparity between the White and Black levels of educational attainment and access. Consider the following:

  • The high school completion rate for Blacks rose between 1972 and 2000, but the gap between Whites and Blacks ceased to narrow in the early 1980s.
  • Scores of Blacks lag behind Whites on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests. The gaps in mathematics test score outcomes are even larger.
  • Most African Americans enrolled in institutions of higher education are concentrated in two-year rather than four-year institutions.
  • Disparities in access to higher education between African-American women and men are pronounced. In 2000, two-thirds of all Blacks enrolled in colleges and universities were women.

The data establishing disparities in Blacks’ access to quality education opportunity at all levels is voluminous, as are the explanations offered by diverse commentators. Suffice to say here that African Americans are concentrated in great numbers in under-resourced public elementary schools, taught in disproportionate numbers by inexperienced and/or out-of-field teachers, and denied access equal to that provided to Whites to advanced placement courses. In other words, as a group, Blacks are still largely afforded unequal and inferior educational opportunity compared to Whites in public elementary and secondary schools. As a result of these and other factors, African Americans score lower on standardized tests than their White counterparts, and fewer go on to college or graduate school than their White counterparts.

The consequence of the education deficit from which Blacks suffer is that about “(o)ne out of four Black children lives in poverty. One in four Black men is in trouble with the law; one out of five is in college. Half of the Black women in America are heads of households, and half of them live with their children in poverty. Is the glass half full or half empty? Does this metaphor matter in light of the reality before us?

Today, efforts to improve education for the children who need help the most, the children with whose interests the Brown court was aligned, have many faces. Below, I highlight two major engines of change in use today to improve the basic education that Black and other disadvantaged students receive: the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and “adequacy litigation.”

Read the Full Essay Below

Carter, R.L., Egerton, J., Glasser, I., Greenberg, J., Huntley, L., Jones, N. R., McMillian, & E.W.,

                Motley, C. B., (2004). On the Right Side of History: Lessons from


                Atlanta, GA: Southern Education Foundation.

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