By Dr. Elizabeth V. Primas
The African Americans’ fight for the right to have equality in education is often associated with the 1954 land-mark case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, KS. It has been considered one of the most compelling cases of the Supreme Court of the twentieth century. The court unanimously decided that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Amendment XIV, Section 1. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process or law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.)
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began bringing law suits against legal racial segregation in the early 1950s. Lawyers filed class action suits for Black school children and their families in several states, including Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia. Oliver Brown’s law suit was just one of several law suits brought against educational systems that had practiced institutional racism through their systemic ‘de jure segregation’. Brown vs. Board of Education was a combined case from the different states that finally made its way to the Supreme Court.
Oliver Brown, the plaintiff and parent of one of the children that had been denied admission to a Topeka, Kansas white school, became the face of the law suits. The lawsuit’s claim was that the segregation of public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. The federal district court dismissed the claim. The ruling stated that the segregated public schools were “substantially” equal enough to be considered ‘constitutional’ under the Plessy doctrine. (Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a Louisiana Law passed in ‘1890’ providing for separate railway cars for white and colored people. Homer Plessy argued that the segregation of railway cars violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. (AMENDMENT XIII, Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.) The court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment only guaranteed ‘civil rights’ (e.g., voting and serving on juries); not ‘social rights’. Judge Henry Brown’s opinion stated, “if one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” Under the Plessy ruling, the United States upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, this promoted segregation in all facilities and institutions. There had been eleven school integration cases dating from 1881 to 1949. Each of the cases had been denied by their individual county or states.
Attorney Thurgood Marshall argued the Brown case on behalf of several consolidated cases in front of the Supreme Court. NAACP combined the cases and presented them to the US Supreme Court as the Oliver L. Brown et al. vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, et al. All the cases dealt with school segregation. The individual cases, which had been argued in their respective states were: Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart (1951) in Delaware; Bolling v. Sharpe (1951) in the District of Columbia; The Briggs v. Elliott case in South Carolina [a culmination of several cases that started in 1947 (DeLaine v. Clarendon County, and Briggs v. Elliott (1950)]; Davis v. Prince Edward County in the Commonwealth of Virginia (1951); and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) in Topeka, Kansas.
On May 17, 1954 at 12:52 pm the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that it was unconstitutional, violating the 14th amendment to separate children in public schools for no reason other than their race. The Supreme Court overturned ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’ laws that had systemically segregated children by race in schools. The decision on Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), successfully challenged the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, and the ruling in the case set in motion the Civil Rights Movement (1955-68).
This decision had been the answer to a lot of prayers. However, with every step forward, there have been steps backwards. The Brown decision had repercussions on both sides of the aisle. Black students began to attend white schools, often enduring violence and bullying. White families fled neighborhoods in cities moving to the suburbs to avoid forced integration. Consequently, the financial base to support urban public schools was eroded. Thus, further continuing the blight and inequities in the schools that Blacks attended. The impact on communities was reflected in the loss of businesses, job opportunities, and financial support to families. Ultimately, lending to the destruction of the Black community and the family unit. The introduction of drugs led to crime and a proliferation of “Black on Black violence”. More Black men were incarcerated. Women took on the role as the ‘bread winner’, leaving their young children to raise themselves, or be raised by the streets.
With integration, the highly qualified Black teachers were offered jobs in the integrated schools, taking the best teachers from the communities where they were needed the most. With integration, Black students going to college now had the choice to attend the Ivy League and affluent white colleges which were able to hire professors at a higher pay than the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) could offer. By 1982, many of the HBCUs had closed. Several had become predominately white (West Virginia State and Bluefield State, both in West VA), and still others held on with constant fear of losing accreditation (Morris Brown College, Atlanta, GA – 2015). Black enrollments in higher education are at an all-time high. Unfortunately, nationwide the Black student college graduation rate remains dismally low, at a level of about 45 percent. The Black student college graduation rate is about 20 percentage points lower than the rate for whites. In fact, the graduation rate of Blacks has not significantly increased since the 1960’s. While more Black college students attend the main stream universities, the HBCUs graduate a higher percentage of Black students than all other colleges and universities combined.
Integration has been a two-step dance of gains and losses for human rights, civil rights and financial dignity. The progress is much like the gains and losses immediately following the Emancipation Act and the Reconstruction era. Not a slave, but not free. The right to vote but can’t pass the voters’ test only given to Blacks. At some point America must recognize all citizens equally. Make America Great Again, should not be a return to Jim Crow, KKK and high-tech lynchings. The twenty-first century must strive to be America for All.