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Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education; A Legacy Well Worth Lauding

On this the 50th Anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education (Brown v. Board), I am called upon by humility and circumstance to reflect on its broader meaning and implications to Our American society. Long looked upon as the seminal Supreme Court ruling of the last century, Brown v. Board’s importance is now being openly questioned by many in the black community.

Its detractors point to the seeming resurgence of segregation in the public schools of America’s inner-cities as proof that Brown v. Board’s legacy is unraveling, its promise broken. I assert that it is not; that in fact ending segregation in the public schools was just one of the legacies of Brown v. Board. The other more sweeping legacy has had a profound effect on the fabric of American society and has once and for all brought true liberty and equality before the law to all American citizens.

Many prominent black scholars, including Georgetown University Law Professor and Author Sheryll Cashin, point out that while “legal segregation is a thing of the past, racial separation persists in schools and in communities.” And other detractors have also pointed to stark decline in the once highly touted all-black schools that were once pillars of excellence under segregation, but have now become unwitting victims of so-called "bright flight," as highly qualified black teachers left for promising and more lucrative teaching opportunities elsewhere. One could credibly argue that A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, Alabama—an institution with a long list of distinguished graduates and a 100-year history—is an example of such a school.

While I find merit in the argument that racial integration has had mixed results in the nation's public schools, as report after report has painstakingly detailed, I question the wisdom of placing the blame for such failures at Brown v. Board’s multi-faceted feet. I submit that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board was more than just an antidiscrimination decree meant to equalize the glaring inequities in our nation’s public schools that were a fact of life in 1954. Brown v. Board fully extended constitutional protections to black Americans heretofore only enjoyed by whites, and bestowed fully the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence upon black citizens.

While the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, it did not confer equal standing before the law upon the newly freed slaves. Even after the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, black Americans still could not claim full and equal constitutional protection. The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessey v. Ferguson in which the Court upheld an 1890 Louisiana statute mandating racially segregated, but equal railroad carriages, cemented the separate but equal doctrine fully into the foundation of American jurisprudence, and in effect validated the Southern states’ heinous Jim Crow laws. The Court’s ruling that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution dealt only with political, and not social equality, legitimized black Americans’ standing as second class citizens in the United States. Their skin color prevented them from calling the Declaration of Independence and U.S. or State's constitutions their own. Thus began the American Apartheid in earnest.

Brown v. Board was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. Brown v. Board was the catalyst that set in motion the tide of a Civil Rights movement which, although begun before Brown v. Board, would now hold up as proof that the law was theirs to claim and no longer the sole province of whites. In effect the ruling in Brown v. Board would lead to the systematic dismantling of the now unconstitutional Jim Crow laws culminating in the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia in which miscegenation laws were deemed unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivering the majority opinion of the Court opened thusly:

This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. [n. 1] For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.

Because of Brown v. Board the Civil Rights movement was given legal legs upon which to stand. To be sure the road ahead after Brown v. Board was to be littered with the blood, sweat, tears, anguish, sacrifice and sorrow of black as well as white Americans who struggled to end the American Apartheid, but without Brown v. Board we might still be engaged in that titanic battle. Instead, today, we are battling for the hearts and soul of Americans who still cling to the idea that skin color disenfranchises one from enjoying the American dream. Hearts and souls cannot be changed by laws—that change must come from within, through the banishment of the darkness of ignorance replaced by the light of truth and understanding.

As I sit here, now typing this essay on my computer, at a desk in the loft of the house my wife and I built for our family, living the quintessential American dream, I am ever mindful of the sacrifice and dedication to the cause of freedom and equality of those who went before me. Because of their courage Brown v. Board was brought before the High Court and argued by a man who will forever personify what it means to fight for the cause of freedom and equality against seemingly impossible odds. That man of course is Thurgood Marshall, who would later take his seat as Associate Justice in the very court that once again restored the lawful balance between white and black Americans. And from that perch he helped further the cause of liberty and equality for Black folk with his eloquent, persuasive arguments and undying belief that the Constitution was a document written for all of America’s citizens.

To me, Brown v. Board will always be about more than the guarantee that little black children could go to school with little white children; it was the case that brought to life the possibilities of the American dream for all Americans, not just those lucky enough to be born white. Brown v. Board gave new birth to the founding principles of our nation, that all men are created equal and that all American citizens could and should expect and demand the right to sit under the shade of constitutional protections, whilst seeking the coolness of freedom, equality and due process before the law.

In that respect Brown v. Board has been a tremendous success story; the ruling did its part, now it is up to us in the black community to do the rest. Yes the fight to end racism in all of its insidious guises continues across the American landscape, but because of Brown v. Board that fight now and forever has legal teeth. Now is no time to rest and play the victim, not when our community is in need of desperate self-help. Now is not the time to look outward for solutions but inwards for the motivation needed to further uplift one another, to call upon the courage and convictions that so sustained those who came before us and teach our children what it means, what it has always meant to be black in America.

We as a community have come a long way since the time of Jim Crow when blacks and whites were by law made to live separate and inherently unequal lives; Brown v. Board was a significant waypoint along that road. Let us not now lose the historical significance of the ruling in a forest of new educational woes it did not give root to. And in an increasingly divided political landscape we all would do well to remember this election season that we all, black and white, straight or gay, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, read from the same constitutional cloth which guarantees all citizens life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Posted by V. Edward Martin at May 31, 2004 3:13 PM