The Impact of Brown v. Board 50 Years Later is Explored
CHICAGO, April 6, 2004 – On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and declared that “separate but equal” educational facilities were unconstitutional. Fifty years later, what is the lasting legacy of Brown, and are today’s schools following the desegregation standards laid out in the original decision?
In its April cover story, the ABA Journal explores “Brown at 50,” in a series of articles that looks at the people who were instrumental in crafting the litigation, and their efforts to bring together a fractious nation.
One article, “The Court Comes Together,” looks at how the Supreme Court changed with the appointment of Earl Warren to chief justice in 1953. Unanimity in overturning school segregation could not be achieved in the previous court, in part because of the geographical differences among the justices. According to the article, when the argument came before the Warren court, the chief justice made it plain that segregation had no place in contemporary America, and asked how the Court could reach a unanimous decision.
Warren’s position “was apparent to me in conversations,” said Earl Pollock, who served as a clerk in the chambers of the chief justice, especially “in light of his background in California, where he had been emphatic in his view about racial equality and segregation.”
According to the article, upon achieving unanimity Warren quickly moved to finalize his draft and make the court’s historic announcement. The decision did not come without scrutiny. The opinion was written quickly, in short, tight statements to be readable to the American people, and not written to satisfy lawyers or law professors, Pollock explained.
“The chief set out the framework, and he accomplished his objectives,” Pollock said. “He is due an extraordinary amount of credit for getting the court together. That short, concise statement contains some of his ringing phrases. It can be read today and still bring a lump to the throat.”
“Making Brown Real” covers the plight of a North Carolina family who fought threats and intimidation after suing to integrate schools more than a decade after Brown. Christine and Luther Coppedge joined a suit in 1965, when their son Harold entered school, to desegregate the all-white public schools in Franklin County where they lived.
According to the article the Coppedges endured unceasing harassment, drive-by shootings, nails in their driveway, poisoned wells, murdered pets and a burning cross on their lawn.
“Our lead plaintiffs were harassed and threatened about every day,” said Julius L. Chambers, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer who took the case.
The article explains that while the county had satisfied federal education authorities by adopting a freedom-of-choice plan, there proved to be very little free choice for black students. Data collected by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project showed that by the end of the first decade after Brown, only 2.3 percent of black students in the South were attending majority white schools.
Today the Justice Department counts Franklin County among the 361 elementary and secondary school districts still under desegregation orders where the government is a party. According to the article, the Coppedges were stunned to learn the case is still ongoing, but were unified in saying that it was worth the turmoil and heartache.
“All we wanted was for our son to have a quality, equal education,” Christine Coppedge said. “I would do it again.”
“Are Schools Returning to the 1950s,” looks at a trend exposed in a Harvard University study this year showing a reversal in the rate of desegregation. After a peak in school integration in the late 1980s, the study shows that there has been a slow decline in many states, a phenomenon experts call resegregation, or a polarizing of the racial mix in public schools.
“The courts assumed that the forces that produced segregation and inequality had been cured,” said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and public policy at Harvard and one of the authors of the study. “This report shows they have not been.”
Experts have had difficulty identifying a cause for the trend, the article says.
Reframing the issue from the rights of minority students to the best interest of all students, and of society at large, is key to jump-starting the dormant desegregation enforcement system, said Orfield.
“The problem of resegregation is that it’s multifaceted without the ability to specify one factor,” said Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, who heads the ABA Commission on the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, celebrating the anniversary of the decision. “You have urban flight – whites going to the suburbs. What’s left is minorities with few options in all-minority schools.”
ABA President Dennis Archer established the ABA Brown v. Board commission. Dialogues on Brown v. Board will take place throughout 2004, bringing lawyers, judges and policymakers into America’s classrooms to promote better understanding of the role the law has played in responding to our nation’s greatest challenges. The Brown decision is also this year’s Law Day theme.
The ABA Journal, with a circulation of 388,000, is the most-read legal publication in the world. The magazine is the flagship publication of the American Bar Association.
The American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional association in the world. With more than 400,000 members, the ABA provides law school accreditation, continuing legal education, information about the law, programs to assist lawyers and judges in their work, and initiatives to improve the legal system for the public.