Brown Decision Got the Law Right, But Not the Facts

Published May 1, 2004

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The decision gets its name from a black family in Topeka, Kansas, who thought their young daughter Linda should be able to attend a public school closer to their home. Although her application was denied because the school was for whites only, the Supreme Court subsequently ruled public education must be made available to all children on equal terms.

The Brown decision was a pivotal moment in American history, for Southern blacks in particular. After ending slavery and seeing the collapse of Reconstruction, the United States was now taking its first step toward dismantling legalized segregation in its public education system. Up to this point, the Southern states had sponsored a two-tiered public school system, one for blacks and one for whites. That two-tier system was ruled unconstitutional in a unanimous decision by the 1954 Brown court.

I was in the ninth grade on May 17, 1954, when the ruling was issued. I remember it well. After growing up in the segregated society of Troy and Montgomery, Alabama, with separate “white” and “colored” water fountains in all the downtown stores, I paid attention when the news on the radio reported the Court’s decision.

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” the Court declared. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The Brown case was the major topic of discussion for the remaining 17 days of school that year. As students, we thought we would at last get the chance to compete head-to-head with white students, with all students reading from the same books. Until then, we had only one chance a year to read from the same book as whites: When our high school marching band paraded through town. There is only one way to play John Philip Sousa.

The black teachers were concerned about losing their jobs. They knew white parents would not allow them to teach their children. In fact, many did lose their jobs.

Court Missed the Inequality

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court overturned the precedent of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, where the court had ruled that states requiring separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites did not violate the equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

In formulating their decision, the 1954 Supreme Court justices saw conditions in public schools for blacks and whites as essentially equal but separate. They reported as fact that “the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other ‘tangible’ factors.”

In reality, the facts were different. The reality of life in the South was not “equal but separate” between the two races, but always unequal and separate. For example, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recently referred to the stark inequalities he experienced growing up in Monticello, Mississippi.

“They had a gym. We played on dirt courts,” he told U.S. News and World Report. “They had new textbooks. Our textbooks had the covers torn off.”

Despite the reality, the Court declared educational facilities for blacks and whites were equal. The problem, the justices concluded, was not unequal public school facilities but public school segregation, which produced “a sense of inferiority” among black children and deprived them of “equal educational opportunities.” Legally sanctioned segregation, they stated, “has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”

On May 31, 1955, the High Court revisited Brown to consider remedies, including whether “Negro children should forthwith be admitted to schools of their choice.” The Court ruled schools must be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.” That phrase allowed my home state of Alabama to avoid implementing Brown until 1963. In fact, “deliberate speed” ended up being virtually no speed at all, as the Court itself admitted when it began to fashion a more forceful remedy in the 1960s.

Gap Remains

Entering the twenty-first century and looking back on the past 50 years of Brown, it is clear there still is segregation, but for different reasons than in 1954. More important, there is a persistently wide gap in educational achievement between black and white children. For example, ongoing national tests show the average 17-year-old black student has about the same reading skills as the average 13-year-old white student.

Much of the gap may be attributed to low expectations for black students, but many districts are beginning to set higher standards. New York City, for example, recently established that all students would have to pass tests of basic skills in reading and math before being allowed to move up to the next grade. That’s a tough-love approach–and it may be difficult to enforce over the long term. The Chicago Public School system, for example, recently backed off its tough promotion standards for third, sixth, and eighth grades.

Today, as in 1954, education is the most important function of state and local governments. It is the number one civil rights issue among younger blacks, who are fighting with older black leaders about educational choice as a viable strategy for addressing the problem of persistently failing public schools. Low-income parents in particular need better choices.

How different would the last half-century have been if the Brown decision had been focused less on the segregation of blacks and whites and more on blacks achieving a quality education? Or less on sociology and more on fact? What is undeniable is that, 50 years after Brown, black students still need to achieve much more.

Lee H. Walker is president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change, which works to develop and promote a conservative multicultural perspective on economic and social policies. His email address is [email protected].