May 27, 2004
Phone: (504) 865-5714
It was more than half a century ago when 13 African-American families, encouraged by the NAACP, challenged the law--and conscience--of America by attempting to enroll in a "whites only" elementary school in Topeka, Kansas.
After they were denied access, their case was taken up by the NAACP in a lawsuit filed against the Board of Education in Topeka. The list of plaintiffs, determined alphabetically, began with the family of third-grader Linda Brown.
Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that segregating children in public schools by race is unconstitutional under the provision of equal protection articulated in the 14th Amendment.
The importance of this seminal moment in American history is perhaps not so much how the court ruling changed education in America, but how it changed the way Americans viewed issues of race, says Ray Diamond, professor of law and co-author of Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture and the Constitution.
Brown v. Board is not simply a landmark case but also the metaphor of race relations in 1954 and beyond, says Diamond. "It is a case that represents the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow era and American apartheid. It presages the end of what [my co-authors and I] have called the American racial caste system."
According to Diamond, Brown may be the key moment in the Civil Rights struggle, noting that the Montgomery bus boycott , the public outrage over the murder of Emmett Till and the Little Rock crisis all occured after the court's ruling.
"Brown changes our minds," says Diamond. "It is that which forces us to turn the bright light of equality on American race relations."
While the unanimous decision carried a conscience-changing moral authority that demanded blacks be included more broadly in all aspects of American life, it may ultimately have been ineffective in actually integrating American public schools, says Diamond.
"Many studies have concluded that schools are more segregated today than in 1954," says Diamond. That's because the court failed to deal with the question of remedy. In fact, when the court revisited Brown the following year to decide how to remediate segregation, it produced language that, according to Diamond, "oozed equivocation from every pore. Desegregation would occur with all deliberate speed and not with any insistency."
The Supreme Court ultimately left the matter of remedy to the district courts, where Southerners had traditionally found ways around court mandates. "I think the history of implementation of Brown is a very sorry history," says Diamond. "What Brown II did was give plenty of lead time for white Southerners to put in place strategies to avoid desegregation. And we saw the institution of private schools. What we have today are many schools that used to be segregation academies that don't discriminate any more. And public schools are rendered to black and mostly poor people."
Diamond's personal view, and one not included in the book or necessarily shared by his co-authors Robert Cottrol (George Washington Law School) and Leland Ware (University of Delaware), is that if the court had taken strong measures with respect to remedy "we might have a different experience with the desegregation of schools."
Still, Diamond believes the 1954 ruling exerts power and influence in our own lives. "Brown still speaks wonders about the need for racial reconciliation in this country and active measures to produce racial inclusion." Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture and the Constitution, which won the David J. Langum Sr. Prize for Historical Literature in 2003, was published last year by University Press of Kansas.
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