After 70 years, Brown vs. Board of Education continues the fight against Jim Crow

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On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case known as Brown vs. Board of Education. This landmark decision outlawed racial segregation in America’s public schools. It was a case filed in 1952, but had been in the making for nearly two decades. 

To say that the issuing of the decision caused a firestorm would be putting it mildly. A majority of the southern senators and representatives issued what they called the Southern Manifesto, vowing to oppose the racial integration of the public schools in their states. 

Many of the southern state legislatures passed laws enabling local school boards and superintendents to close public schools rather than desegregate them. Many municipalities, such as Little Rock Arkansas; Clinton, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Sturgis, Kentucky, witnessed mob action as Black students enrolled in the previously all-white schools. Such stubborn opposition continued in Mississippi until the Fall Semester of 1969, when the court issued its decision on Alexander vs. Holmes, immediately desegregating this state’s public schools.

Lest one gets it twisted, the basic premise behind Brown vs. Board of Education was that the only sure way to provide equal educational opportunity for Black students was by having them in the same setting as white students. By eliminating inferior and superior schools, Black children would begin feeling better about themselves and not being relegated to what was inferior or “what they could handle.” That was the goal. 

As important as this goal and the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in the field of public education, however, their influence was far greater than that. It is no stretch to say that the issuing of the decision helped lead to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and the initiation of affirmative action programs, all of which were attacks on the Jim Crow policies erected after Reconstruction. 

In that sense, the Brown decision opened the door for the total ousting of Jim Crow. Yet, as most objective observers can see, Jim Crow has not died. Instead, it has found ways to sustain itself and occasionally gain momentum.

It is a bit ironic that the same week 58 years earlier, on May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court had given its nod for the legitimizing of Jim Crow policies. In the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court held that companies could operate facilities and/or provide services separately to Black and white citizens so long as they were equal, as stipulated in the Fourteenth Amendment. Although that case had dealt only with public transportation, advocates of segregation quickly broadened their interpretation and applied it to schools, offices, hotels, restaurants, and all other venues that catered to or accommodated the public. The Plessy ruling had indeed given license for the so-called “Southern way of life,” a way of life that had grown out of the attitude of white supremacy and been enforced through intimidation, terrorism, and violence.

From the 1890s onward, Jim Crow and this Southern way of life remained solid. Therefore, the phrase “the Solid South” came to characterize not just the fact that the southern states voted solidly for Democratic candidates, since it was that party which has opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans. It was solid in its erection and maintaining of Jim Crow and strict racial segregation. It was virtually impenetrable. 

As other white people moved into the south, they generally conformed to the custom. As other racial and ethnic groups moved in, they were often treated as “honorary white people” and proceeded to practice the Jim Crow lifestyle, including the operation of the public schools.

It is noteworthy that there was little done to deal with the institutions prior to 1954. Across the southern region, Black patrons in movie theaters, night clubs, and restaurants “knew and kept to their places.” The same was true of buses, trains, taxis, and planes. 

In virtually every municipality there were Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, with almost nobody violating the segregation codes. Even when it came to jobs and economics, there were the places for Black people and others for white people. (As late as 1967, Wharlest Jackson of Natchez, Mississippi, was murdered after accepting a supervisory position in a plant where there would be white workers under his supervision.)

Using “states’ rights” as their sword and shield, white leaders, such as James Eastland, J.Z. George, James K. Vardaman, Theodore Bilbo, and Walter Sillers ruled as if things would forever remain unchanged. Thousands of plantation owners were rolling in wealth, living off the fat of the land which was created by millions of Black laborers. For these white overlords, “the south had risen again.” Jim Crow was here to stay.

Thus, in 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was threatening to destroy their world. While they had not imagined in their wildest dreams that their precious daughters would have to go to school with Black boys, they quickly predicted that their way of life might soon be lost.

Sure enough, once the court ordered the desegregation of the public schools, other manifestations of Jim Crow came under attack. In 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation on vehicles of public transportation. (Of course, it took the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1960s Freedom Riders to get the ban fully enforced.) This was a major endeavor that did not just follow the Brown decision. It was built upon the optimism that things could be changed and upon the courage that had been witnessed in the students who had desegregated previously all-white schools.

Almost like dominoes, Congress in 1964 followed the Brown decision and the ICC ruling with a new civil rights act. The 1964 act set out to destroy Jim Crow in public accommodations and public facilities. It also equipped federal agencies and the federal courts to handle cases growing out of the conditions. In its wake, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, offices, and much of the fabric of public transactions and interactions across the south changed. Many establishments even went out of business rather than follow the new rules.

Then, in 1965, came the congressional act that helped destroy the Jim Crow mechanisms and trappings around voting. The Voting Rights Act did not just enable hundreds of thousands of Black people to vote. It enabled many Black people to become elected officials and it softened the expressed campaign rhetoric and promises of many white office-seekers. Additionally, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act and other steps were taken to weaken Jim Crow in American life, including the encouragement of affirmative action for college admissions and scholarships, and on jobs. All of this stemmed from Brown vs. Board of Education and the effort to apply the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. 

Yes, Brown got the ball rolling and its basic premise is still valid today as many conservative and racist leaders seem dead-set on turning back the clock. There are efforts to weaken and destroy public education through the lack of sufficient funding; through the rise of charter schools and vouchers for children who attend private schools; through attacks on the teaching of African American history and the racist underpinnings of American history; and through actions to get rid of the concepts of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as racially corrective initiatives. 

Seventy years is a long time, but racism and Jim Crow do not die easily and so we need the spirit of Brown vs. Board of Education to help eliminate them for good. 

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After 70 years, Brown vs. Board of Education continues the fight against Jim Crow

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 20, 2024