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Brown at 50: Can We Fulfill Its Vision?
"When it comes to public education, the civil rights struggle is far from over."

Posted: May 17, 2004


The Aftermath of Brown

The Ongoing Struggle

Fulfilling the Promise of Brown


It is difficult to pinpoint where the Brown v. Board of Education story begins. The history of discrimination, unequal treatment, and segregation against Blacks in this country is a long and difficult one. Court cases since the 1890s, most notably Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), ruled that "separate but equal" did not violate the constitution, and that therefore there was no need for integration.

"Separate but equal" was particularly troublesome in education, where the separate facilities for Black and White students were anything but equal. Black students went to schools with vastly inferior facilities and supplies. Schools for Black students were often overcrowded, and many students had to travel several miles, sometimes even walking right by a school for White students to get to the school that they were allowed to attend.

In 1933, the primary strategy for fighting the "separate but equal" doctrine did not challenge the segregation itself. Instead, it sought to persuade courts that the inequalities of the education that Black and White students received was a violation of the equal rights promised to all citizens under the Constitution. This strategy did not meet with much success, however, and it soon became clear that another approach was needed.

Just one year after receiving his law degree from Howard University, Thurgood Marshall decided to try a new line of attack. He thought that, rather than trying to ensure that separate educational facilities really were equal, Blacks should challenge segregation on the basis that separate facilities could never be equal, and that therefore, integration was necessary to ensure that Black and White students received an education equal in quality. Marshall tested this plan first at the university level. When a Black applicant was denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School, the same school that had refused to admit Marshall several years earlier, he encouraged the young man to ask the Board of Regents why his application had been rejected. When the school's response suggested that he wait for the planned Black law school to be built, and then apply there, Marshall knew that he had his case. When the case went to court in 1935, Marshall argued that the Plessy case required that Black students have access to equal facilities, and because there was no law school in the state of Maryland that would accept Blacks, the University of Maryland was required to do so. The day after Marshall made his arguments, the court directed the University to accept the Black applicant.

In the following years, many cases were patterned after this one. In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled that Black professional and graduate schools had to be equal to White schools in every way-in resources, facilities, and even in the extent to which they offered professional opportunities-or else the White schools had to be integrated. Following this decision, Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a coalition of prominent Black lawyers, planned to use this victory to ensure an integrated education for younger schoolchildren in the nation's public schools.

Examples of vastly unequal schools were available across the country. Marshall and his team of committed civil right activists chose cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, as well as the now well-known case of the Brown family from Topeka, Kansas to go together to the Supreme Court. ADL, along with five other organizations, filed an amicus brief in Brown arguing that segregated education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution because it allowed the government to treat students differently solely because of their race. ADL argued that "that which is unequal in fact cannot be equal in law and , therefore, segregation and equality cannot co-exist in public education." Segregation, our brief asserted, "forces a sense of limitation upon the child and destroys incentive. It produces feelings of inferiority and discourages racial self-appreciation." The League asked the Court to specifically overturn its previous "separate but equal" doctrine: "…there is a pressing public necessity to give all American citizens their due - equality of opportunity to use educational facilities established by the State for its inhabitants."

The Court agreed with the ADL and other civil liberties groups. Announcing a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren said that "separate education facilities are inherently unequal," later using the famous phrase that public schools must be integrated "with all deliberate speed".

The Aftermath of Brown

Although the Brown decision firmly stated that de jure segregated schools were illegal, it was not nearly as easy as many had hoped to integrate the schools. As much as ten years later, there were still very few Black students attending integrated schools. But steps were being taken in individual states, as well as at the federal level. In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which allowed the federal government to withhold funds from schools that remained segregated.

In the midst of growing support for civil rights in the late '60s and '70s, the Supreme Court got involved in the issue again. First, in 1968 the Court struck down a "freedom of choice" program from Virginia that purported to promote integration by allowing all families in the state to choose which school they wanted their children to attend. The Court found that under this plan almost all Black students in the south were still in the schools that had been reserved for them under segregation.

Then, in 1969, the Court threw out their previous "all deliberate speed" language and ordered desegregation "at once" in Mississippi. The Court became even more forceful in 1971, when it handed down one of its most controversial decisions on this issue, and ordered busing in the school district of Charlotte-Mecklenberg, North Carolina. Although many Americans strongly opposed busing, it proved to be an effective means of enforcing the original desegregation order. By the 1972-1973 school year, the number of Black children in the south attending integrated schools had increased exponentially in five years.

The Ongoing Struggle

Unfortunately, the Brown case and subsequent desegregation cases have not produced the long-lasting effects that many hoped for. Even busing, by far the most effective method of desegregation, had its flaws. Many students, Black and White, had to travel long distances to get to their assigned school, often being bused right past closer schools.

In 1997, parents in Charlotte-Mecklenberg sued to end busing. Although other parents in the district argued that ending busing would result in a return to a de facto "separate but equal" school system, the courts found that busing had served its purpose, creating a school system where almost every school had equal numbers of White and Black students. The court therefore ordered an end to busing in that district. Other school districts followed suit.

The end of busing and other forced desegregation measures resulted in what many parents and advocates of educational equality had feared: many schools became almost as segregated as they had been before Brown. Consequently, many students no longer benefit from the diversity that was deemed so important in the desegregation cases.

This lack of diversity has resulted in a wide disparity in funding for schools. The racially or ethnically segregated school districts in which minority children live are eleven times more likely to be in impoverished areas than are predominantly White school districts. Schools in districts with high poverty rates generally receive much less funding than do schools in districts with higher incomes. Poorer schools tend to have lower test scores, fewer teachers with the highest credentials, fewer competitive classes, and send fewer students to college. In an age when mandatory tests are a condition to high-school graduation, and when getting a well-paying job without a diploma-to say nothing of a college degree-is increasingly difficult, the consequences of these abundant disparities are especially troublesome.

Fulfilling the Promise of Brown

The current situation in schools across this country is clearly not what the courageous individuals who fought so hard for integration. had in mind. What then can be done to return diversity to our nation's schools and to ensure equal educational opportunities for all students, regardless of their race, class, or ethnic background?

It seems unlikely that the courts are going to reinstate busing, or other desegregation policies in districts that have become resegregated. Thus, advocates of diversity in schools must turn to non-judicial tools.

One such option is to encourage fair housing and lending policies to provide low income families with access to middle class schools. Because the population of schools is usually drawn from the population of the surrounding neighborhoods, increasing the diversity of the neighborhoods would increase the diversity of the schools. Another option is to encourage public educational choice plans, particularly those that feature magnet schools. Magnet schools allow students from different neighborhoods and backgrounds to come together because of a common interest in the arts, math, science, or technology without regard to race, class, or ethnicity.

Schools themselves can take an active role by promoting the importance of diversity in the classroom. Students should be encouraged to investigate - though research, discussion, case studies, and role play - whether segregation is a problem we once struggled with, or a problem we still face. In addition to providing a factual history of the struggle for integration, this can allow students to make personal connections from past to present, challenge students to reflect on their own beliefs about diversity, and inspire social action within schools.

There are many other tools that communities and school districts can use to increase diversity in schools. The important thing to remember is that a diverse student body benefits all students, and that equal educational opportunities for all students benefits society as a whole.


When it comes to public education, the civil rights struggle is far from over. The fight that began even long before Thurgood Marshall made his enormous contribution is ongoing, and we must not let his efforts and the efforts of other committed advocates of diversity become merely an historical footnote. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, it is more important than ever that this dream for which they fought not be forgotten.

Related Materials
Curriculum for Teachers: Exploring The Promise Of Brown V. Board Of Education 50 Years Later
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