What is the legacy of this historic civil rights victory?
Nearly sixty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, declaring segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, after an intense three-year battle by the NAACP and other advocates in Kansas and nationally. It was a major legal step in overturning U.S.-style apartheid.
While Brown v. Board was a historic step forward, it took years of determined struggle by the African American community and its allies in state after state to make the Brown victory a living reality. After Brown, more sacrifice would be needed to desegregate public school systems, universities, public transportation, employment and more — due to deeply entrenched, institutionalized racism in the South and, in fact, every region of the country.
Brown provided the basis for more victories by the Black community to gain previously denied rights and opportunities, and would help pave the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965.
Struggle in the courts
The court case, Brown v. Board of Education, was first filed in 1951 and then argued before the Supreme Court by NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall on behalf of 13 African American parents and 20 children against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education. Topeka had enforced a rigid system of separate elementary schools for Black and white schoolchildren.
At the time, 17 states required school segregation by law. Kansas was one of four others that made it optional. In other states, although not law, segregation was de facto policy. Therefore, the 1954 decision was truly sweeping in its national scope.
Brown v. Board of Education overturned almost 60 years of the racist “separate but equal” doctrine embedded in the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision which legalized racist Jim Crow segregation in the South.
Although the Plessy case involved public transportation — a Louisiana law decreeing Jim Crow segregation in railroad trains was upheld — the notorious 1896 ruling was extended to every corner of society to brutally oppress the African American nation, from schools to jobs to public places, voting and transportation.
Of course, there was never anything “equal” about “separate but equal.” In every aspect of society it meant grossly inferior facilities for African Americans and a strict dividing line that was enforced by Ku Klux Klan terror and police repression, which often went hand-in-hand. Black people were denied the right to vote, much less hold political office.
Relegating African Americans to an inferior status in every walk of life had a devastating impact. In a famous study called the “doll test,” noted African American psychologists Dr. Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark demonstrated the harmful effects of school segregation on Black children. Black children who participated in the test attributed positive qualities to the white dolls and negative qualities to the Black dolls, showing the major psychological toll segregation took on the self-esteem of African American youth.
What caused a racist Supreme Court to rule against segregation?
Brown v. Board of Education was not a judgment that sprang from the minds of nine suddenly enlightened white men. In fact, some of the Supreme Court justices initially wanted to uphold legal segregation.
Why then would the court end up voting unanimously to overturn the Plessy decision? There were two key factors: rising resistance to racist oppression in the aftermath of World War II, particularly among Black veterans; and, the global struggle between imperialism and the socialist camp at a time of intensifying anti-colonial struggles.
While government leaders proclaimed that WWII was fought to defend “freedom” against racist fascism, millions of African American soldiers served in segregated units and returned home to face the same old Jim Crow/KKK system.
In a letter to a magazine in 1944, while the war was still raging, Corporal Rupert Trimmingham dramatically expressed the sentiments of Black troops, sentiments which they carried home after the war ended the following year.
“Here is a question that each Negro soldier is asking. What is the Negro soldier fighting for? On whose team are we playing? Myself and eight other soldiers were on our way from Camp Claiborne, La., to the hospital here at Fort Huachuca., Az. We had to lay over until the next day for our train. On the next day we could not purchase a cup of coffee at any of the lunchrooms around there. As you know, Old Man Jim Crow rules.
“The only place where we could be served was at the lunchroom at the railroad station but, of course we had to go into the kitchen. But that’s not all; 11:30 a.m. about two dozen German prisoners of war, with two American guards, came into the station. They entered the lunchroom, sat at the tables, had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time.
“I stood on the outside looking on, and I could not help but ask myself these questions: Are these men sworn enemies of this country? Are they not taught to hate and destroy all democratic governments? Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this country? Then why are they treated better than we are? Why are we pushed around like cattle? If we are fighting for the same thing, if we are to die for our country, then why does the Government allow such things to go on? Some of the boys are saying that you will not print this letter. I’m saying that you will.” (Yank Magazine, 1944)
While the start of the modern civil rights movement is considered to be the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott which began in 1955, there were numerous struggles in the preceding years. Many involved armed self-defense, organized and carried out by Black veterans, such as former Marine and later revolutionary leader Robert F. Williams. This struggle shook the racist ruling class to its core; the writing was on the wall.
At the same time, the global struggle between U.S. imperialism and its colonialist allies on one side, and the socialist camp and the rising tide of national liberation movements on the other, escalated dramatically during this period. The continuing existence of a legal, racist, apartheid system was an immense propaganda liability for U.S. leaders in their struggle to prevail in the “Cold War,” one that was continually thrown in their faces.
The Eisenhower Administration, which played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Brown v. Board outcome, saw it as a way to refresh the image of the United States in the global struggle.
The system tries to roll back the people’s victory
The 1954 decision was an important step forward in the anti-racist struggle. However, it was met with massive resistance by the racist white power structure. In many Southern states, the authorities shut down entire school systems rather than integrate them. Racist mobs attacked Black students in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and other states when they tried to integrate previously all-white schools.
It was as part of this racist backlash that the modern charter school “movement” was born. Writing to a Virginia Congressman in 1959, newspaper owner J. Barrye Wall proposed, “a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. [Prince Edward] county as the basic financial program.”
And it was not just in the South, but in many parts of the country. In 1974, two decades after Brown, white mobs numbering in the thousands attacked Black students integrating schools in Boston, Massachusetts.
What defeated the racists was not the Supreme Court or any branch of government, but a mass movement. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans and supporters waged a heroic struggle confronting police dogs, beatings, jailing, torture and death to bring down Jim Crow tyranny in practice.
Today, growing poverty across the United States, most pronounced among communities of color, also reflects a re-segregation of public schools.
Recent national studies, including one by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, show alarming rates of re-segregation in public schools, from the southern California school districts, to the South and heavily segregated cities in the North, like Chicago. In that city, 71 percent of all Black students go to extremely racially segregated schools. The UCLA study shows nationally that 38 percent of Black students and 43 percent of Latino students go to schools where less than 10 percent of the student body is white.
As it was in the days of legally codified “separate but equal,” funding is concentrated in white schools, while Black and Latino students are deprived of basic resources. This is enforced primarily by local, state and federal funding formulas and programs like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.”
Sixty years after the Brown v. Board decision, the struggle to eliminate racism and oppression continues. The mass movements fighting to defend public education from racist cuts and closures in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago show that the determination that defeated Jim Crow is still alive today, and will continue to live until equality in education and all other areas of society are truly won.