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Article of Interest - Culture

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Bridges4Kids LogoBrown v. Board of Education
by David Halberstam, Parade Magazine, April 18, 2004
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It was the first item listed on the docket for the U.S. Supreme Court’s October 1953 term. Ostensibly it was about the right of a black girl to attend a newer, all-white school only seven blocks from her home instead of an older, all-black school more than a mile away. But Brown v. Board of Education, as the case came to be known, was always about much more than that. At its core was whether state governments could claim the right to sustain “separate but equal” schools and other public facilities, segregating black Americans into a world of far less opportunity and denying them full participation in American life.

Nearly 100 years after the end of the Civil War, Brown loomed as nothing less than a great legal test of whether we were going to continue as a house divided against ourselves—as two Americas, one black and one white, standing side by side, unequally and in perpetuity, with the law in most of the South completely and unalterably on the side of the whites. Or were we finally going to begin the long, difficult journey toward becoming one country?

The Brown decision began the birth process —however slow, however difficult, however painful—of a new America.

It also was a great moral test. At stake was the right of the states to tell millions of Americans that they were inferior to others by the nature of their birth and the color of their skin; that they were not worthy of the educational and economic opportunities that America had to offer and must remain second-class citizens.

How it began. The Brown in the case was Oliver L. Brown, a resident of Topeka, Kan. In 1950, Brown tried to register his 7-year-old daughter, Linda, at a new school closer to their home. Her application was rejected.

At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was recruiting black parents in Topeka for a class-action lawsuit against the local school board. For the NAACP—then the organizer of a number of parallel cases around the country—Oliver L. Brown was the perfect lead appellant for the lawsuit. He was a boxcar welder in the Santa Fe Railroad yards, a part-time minister and had a solid family with three children. What’s more, Linda Brown was a good student.

The Brown case was filed in Kansas in 1951, then made its way to the Supreme Court. (Actually the Supreme Court case was a combination of five cases, with more than 200 plaintiffs from four states and the District of Columbia.) More than three years later, on May 17, 1954, the Court handed down its ruling: School segregation was by its very nature unequal. It imposed a feeling of inferiority on black Americans and thus represented a violation of their rights. There was no such thing as “separate but equal.”

Most remarkable in a case that involved such an explosive issue, the Court ruled unanimously, 9-0. For that, much credit must go to Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former governor of California who used his very real political skills to unify a badly divided court.

A different country. Looking back, the America of 1954 was so different from that of today that it is sometimes hard for me to believe it existed in my lifetime. In all too many parts of the South, blacks could not register to vote, could not serve on juries and thus were deprived of the most basic justice.

Black children went to neglected, poverty-stricken elementary and high schools—whose schedules were often arranged so that they would not interfere with cotton picking—and could not go to the best state universities.

The indignities inflicted on blacks every day were both small and large. They could not swim in local pools, eat at local restaurants, stay at local hotels; they could not go to local movie theaters through the main entrance and had to sit separated from the white audience in a ghetto area upstairs.

Overcoming the damage of 200 years of racism may prove to be the most difficult of American journeys.

My friend John Lewis—a young civil rights protester from Troy, Ala., when I first met him in 1960, now a distinguished Congressman from Atlanta—still does not go to movies, because it was so bitter an experience when he was a boy.

In my own memory, I share a comparable image. As a young man, I traveled with Louis Armstrong and his band on their bus from Atlanta to Nashville, where I was working as a reporter. Armstrong was probably the world’s best known and best loved American then. But what I remember clearly all these years later was his bus having to stop along the side of the road so that this proud and joyous man could slip into the bushes to answer the call of nature. In that America, he was not allowed to use a gas-station toilet.

A change is going to come. The Brown decision, more than any other act—political or legal—began the birth process, however belated, however slow, however difficult and however painful, of a new America. Associate Justice Stanley Reed, the Kentuckian who was the last member of the Court to join the majority and make the vote unanimous, later said he believed it was probably the most important ruling the Court had made in its entire history.

Just 60 years earlier, the Court had upheld racism in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision (it ruled that the segregation of schools was constitutional), but now the climate was shifting. World War II, just nine years ended, had been fought against totalitarianism and racism. The forces that drove both Brown and, later, the civil rights movement, were in many ways the first reflection of profoundly changed attitudes among a new generation of Americans. They’d carried the burden of the war overseas and were appalled to find that some of the things they had fought against existed in their own country.

Not without a struggle. Robert Jackson—the Supreme Court Justice who had been the principal American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals—once said that Brown was a benchmark in a country that seemed to be momentarily caught between two worlds, “one dead, the other [still] powerless to be born.”

That the South, especially the Deep South, would resist the demise of segregation was obvious at the time. It was something the Court members were acutely aware of, and the decision was crafted to allow the South to respond with good will and “all deliberate speed.” But the totality of the resistance staggered even the skeptics.

Overcoming the damage of 200 years of racism may prove to be the most difficult of American journeys.

I was a young reporter in Mississippi in 1955 when, over in Yazoo City near the Delta, a group of middle-class blacks signed a petition asking to integrate the local schools. Almost immediately all of them lost their jobs. Banks suddenly called in their mortgages. The young head of the state NAACP, Medgar Evers, soon to be murdered, arranged for me to be smuggled into Yazoo City to meet the victims of the economic backlash. All were quite properly terrified and in no way anxious to continue any further challenge to the power structure. It was clear to me that night how difficult a struggle it was going to be.

Still, Brown was a signal that the Court, if not the political system, was now on the side of equality. It was as if the Supreme Court had changed the color of a giant national traffic light from red to green. Suddenly it was permissible for the national media to put the South under a withering scrutiny that had been lacking in the past.

Among other things, the Brown decision served as the ignition system for the civil rights movement. That movement—led by a group of young black ministers, most notably the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—gradually orchestrated a brilliant assault upon some of segregation’s most toxic forms and helped turn around the conscience of the nation, watching at home on television.

How far have we come? Some of the progress is remarkable. Not only do we have a new black middle class, ever expanding, but Oprah Winfrey—who could not have gone to one of the great white universities in her hometown of Nashville when she was a girl—is our most popular television host; Michael Jordan—who could not have played basketball for North Carolina before Brown—was our most popular athlete and the greatest salesman in our history before he retired; and Bill Cosby has become arguably our most popular comedian. In addition, a whole new generation of black CEOs are now leading some of our nation’s most important companies.

In many ways, the educational map of the South is quite different. At the great universities of the Deep South—places where many a local politician once said that blacks would never attend—blacks not only earn degrees, they also teach. A large part of the athletic programs that are the pride and joy of states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are black-dominated. Yet it also is true that, in many small towns, whites have created their own schools and have left the existing public schools—essentially still segregated—to blacks.

But there also are, not just in the South but in the whole country, heart-breaking reminders both of black poverty and black alienation.

Sometimes, looking back at how I and so many others felt at the time of the Brown decision 50 years ago, I think we had no sense of the extent of the damage that we, as a nation, had inflicted on black Americans in more than 200 years of intense racism, starting with the harshness of slavery and ending with the bitterness of segregation.

The legal and political change that came in from the years 1954 to 1965 was, I now think, the easy part. The hard part—in this most difficult of American journeys—is overcoming the educational, economic and psychological damage produced over so long a period.

But that does not lessen the importance of the Brown decision as a towering historic act and the great new beginning that it represented. It allowed, to paraphrase Justice Jackson’s prophetic words, the new, second America finally to be born.


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