The Fight Over Public Education:

Sixty Five Years After

Brown v. Board of Education

The Fight Over Public Education: Sixty Five Years After Brown v. Board of Education

Raymond C. Pierce

Sixty-five years ago the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education marked a monumental moment in both this nation’s struggle for universal education and the struggle with equitable inclusion of African Americans within the citizenry of the United States.

Public education has always known resistance. Horace Mann and other early 19th century advocates for public education pursued a national policy for mass education with a goal of heightening a unified citizenry and social order. This movement for mass education was met with much resistance, primarily by those who believed education was reserved for the elite. Nonetheless, public education eventually flourished in the North. This movement would not extend south of the Mason Dixon Line, where a massive segment of the population was enslaved as labor for that region’s agrarian economy.

Following the Civil War, the movement for tax-supported education in the South was engineered by newly emancipated African Americans elected to hold office in state legislatures under the protection of Union troops. This movement was financed by Northern philanthropists like George Peabody, who sought the creation of a system of education for the newly emancipated population of African Americans in the South. Foreseeing the advancement of the Industrial Revolution, Peabody and his companion philanthropists understood the social, moral, and economic benefits for the education of African Americans and also poor Whites in the South.

The Root of Educational Disinvestment in the South

When Federal troops were pulled out of the South in 1877, the region became cloaked in Jim Crow, and what survived of public education was encased in an apartheid system of separate and unequal.

The movement in support of public education in the South was met with stiff opposition that far exceeded the opposition to Horace Mann’s earlier universal education movement in the North. When federal troops were pulled out of the South in 1877, the region became cloaked in Jim Crow, and what survived of public education was encased in an apartheid system of separate and unequal.

Over the next seventy years, state and federal courts would receive a stream of challenges to the denial of equitable educational opportunity for African Americans. Northern philanthropy continued to labor in this struggle for equity. In the early 1950s, the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Southern Education Foundation (born out of the George Peabody Education Fund) produced extensive research in support of Thurgood Marshall’s argument before the Supreme Court against segregated education. Of particular note was the fact that the research was opposed by colleges and universities in the South.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Speaking to his colleagues following their victory, civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall stated,

“I don’t want any of you to fool yourselves, the fight has just begun.”
- Thurgood Marshall

Sure enough, in reaction to the Brown decision, segregationists launched tactics to preserve White Supremacist policies and oppose the Rule of Law expressed by the Supreme Court. One such tactic quickly came in the form of school vouchers crafted to allow White parents to receive public school funds to send their children to private schools. The majority of these private schools were created in the aftermath of Brown as a means of avoiding integration. In 1956, the Southern Manifesto was introduced in the U.S. Congress and signed by Senators and Representatives from all of the states that had composed the Confederacy. The Southern Manifesto urged southerners to exhaust all “lawful means” to resist school desegregation.

Today, unchecked state takeovers of local school districts, reduced funding of public education, and old tactics such as school vouchers masked as ‘school choice’ carry on the historic challenges to equitable educational opportunity. Many of these challenges are rooted in the age-old belief that public funds are wasted on educating African Americans, immigrant populations, and the poor. This sentiment works against efforts to improve public education and instead continues the old quest to deconstruct the universal education policies advanced by persons such as Horace Mann, extended by persons such as George Peabody, and constitutionally elevated by persons such as Thurgood Marshall. Because these historic challenges continue, “the fight” Thurgood Marshall spoke of also must continue.

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