I filed this story for a traveling Library of Congress exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic 2004 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that changed the face of education in America by law if not always practice.
Brown v. Board of Education: Educate with an Even Hand and Carry a Big Stick
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown v. Board ruling and its aftermath reveal how far America’s come on the issue of race and how far it still must go. Lauded as a landmark decision against segregated public schools and as a precursor to opening all public institutions, the decree bolstered the nascent civil rights struggle.
Brown was the end game in the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund‘s challenge to the Plessy v. Ferguson separate-but-equal doctrine that sanctioned segregation. The NAACP legal team framed the argument for overturning Plessy in legal, social and moral terms.
The court’s unanimous decision held that school segregation violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment. But the integration and equity mandated by Brown has proven elusive.
One only has to look at Omaha for how insufficient the remedies to implement that finding have been. Before and even long after the ruling, black public school students here were largely confined to a few buildings on the north side. Black faculty were assigned to all black schools. It took a federal lawsuit filed by concerned Omaha parents and a resulting 1975 court-ordered busing program before the Omaha Public School district opened all its doors to students of color.
Thirty years later Omaha, like other urban centers, “is close to the point we were when Brown was decided, which is an educational system that is divided, if not solely on the basis of race, then clearly on the basis of class,” said Omaha attorney and former mayoral candidate Brenda Council. She said the problem will not be fixed until “we openly discuss it and take steps to ameliorate it.”
The OPS One City, One School District plan is the latest remedy offered by proponents of educational equity.
Suburban districts oppose the initiative and counter with options promising incentives and quotas to increase minority student placements.
Anyone interested in what led to Brown and to efforts at undoing or resisting its mandate can get a good primer on the topic by viewing With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty at the Durham Western Heritage Museum.
The 100-plus items on display from the Library of Congress include intimate glimpses inside the precedents and processes behind Brown. There are photos, original legal briefs, even handwritten notes from Supreme Court justices and NAACP lawyers, that delineate history in the making. Some Omahans have personal connections to this history. Brenda Council’s late aunt, Geraldine Gilliam, was the first black teacher to integrate the schools in Topeka, Kansas. “I’m proud of that fact,” Council said.
Topeka native Norman Stanley, who now lives in Omaha, attended pre-Brown Topeka’s Monroe Elementary School. He was the product of a schizoid system whose elementary schools were segregated, but junior highs were integrated.
“It made no sense. You segregate a kid for the first six years and then integrate for the rest? Nobody could ever explain that to me,” Stanley said.
Although proud of the education he received under segregation, he embraced change. He was in the Air Force overseas when the Brown decision came down. “‘Thank God it’s over,’ I said. ‘By the time my grandkids are in high school, everything will be solved.’ How wrong I was.”
A Nov. 8 Durham panel discussion made clear Brown’s legacy is still a potent touchstone for equal rights advocates. Council was joined on the panel by KETV Ch. 7 “Kaleidoscope” host/producer Ben Gray, Creighton University law professor Mike Fenner and Glenwood (Iowa) Community Schools superintendent Stan Sibley.
Council pointed out the sad irony that 50 years after Brown, debate continues on how to fulfill its charge. She spoke of the need for “an enlightened citizenry to engage in open, honest discussion of the issues.”
Gray said equal education remains unrealized as “race, class and white privilege” have “disenfranchised” blacks, who are relegated to schools that have fewer resources. He said equality “ought not just be the law, it ought to be the moral imperative.” A vocal advocate of the OPS plan, he said segregation is back because “we’ve never, ever had a meaningful dialogue about” the issues behind it. “People of goodwill are just going to have to get out of their comfort zone and address this seriously.”
Sibley, a former OPS administrator, said, “It is true that not all of the people in the city of Omaha have a vested interest in the education of all the children in Omaha, and they really ought to. The dialogue has to happen, and if the dialogue focuses on what’s good for kids, then I think it will work out.”
Council said given the debate sparked by the OPS proposal, “It’s almost serendipitous this exhibit has come here at this time in Omaha.”
Rendered by a timid court, Brown was a gerrymandered decision built on “one compromise after another,” Fenner said. Its ambiguous 1955 order to proceed “with all deliberate speed” allowed individual states and school districts to implement the law in fits and starts or to outright ignore or defy it. It took later rulings, including forced busing, to achieve even partial and temporary desegregation.
Social trends like white flight have created entrenched suburban enclaves whose tax-rich districts serve predominantly white student bodies, resulting in the kind of defacto segregation that existed before. As whites have fled older, poorer inner city districts populated mainly by minorities, inner city schools have come to primarily serve students of color. The demarcation that exists along racial and social economic lines in schools reflects the same segregation patterns in housing.
A less than comprehensive response to the conditions that cause segregation has left loopholes for circumventing the spirit of the law. Beyond stifling diversity in schools, segregation critics contend the practice creates an unequal distribution of educational resources, thereby compromising the education of students lacking basics like books, computers, pencils, et cetera.
Mandatory busing forced the hand of school districts like OPS to integrate schools. Since the end of court-ordered busing in Omaha in 1999, OPS has lost most of its upper and middle-class student-tax base. As more students opt out of OPS for the Millard, Ralston, Elkhorn or Westside districts, OPS loses revenues and any semblance of a racially and socioeconomically balanced educational system.
The Brown exhibit includes a ’50s-era political cartoon by Bill Mauldin that sums up the struggle for equality in America. Three black children push mightily against an oversized door with the words “School Segregation” on it. Despite their best efforts, the door is only opened a crack. The caption reads: “Inch by Inch.” Brown opened the door, but forces continue to try and push it shut.
“It was a decision the majority of the country wasn’t really ready for,” Norman Stanley said. “I’m not sure even today we’re ready to do what the court told us to do.”
- Is Segregation Back in U.S. Public Schools? (nytimes.com)
- Brown v. Board site to mark ruling’s anniversary (kansas.com)
- Dept. of Education: School districts can use race-based policies to avoid segregation (wbez.org)
- Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo Displays a Talent for Teaching and Connecting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Jim Crow survives: Alabama (salon.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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