On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. That was 69 years ago.
Since that time, the landscape of America’s public schools have changed. Much of it, however, is façade. Much has been deep changes, but it may be surprising what a careful observer would find 69 years after the decision.
In May of 1954, legal Jim Crow reigned supreme in the southern and border states. On the other hand, in much of the rest of the country, public schools were racially segregated based upon neighborhoods or housing patterns rather than the law itself.
Led by Thurgood Marshall and a team of outstanding lawyers and witnesses, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund had prevailed in its attempt to end the system of gravely disparate funding of public education. Through that case, the plaintiffs also hoped to completely destroy Jim Crow schooling. The suit went beyond Plessey vs. Ferguson, which had helped sanction desegregation, under the banner of separate but equal public schooling.
In Brown vs. Board of Education, the court basically said that the schools which were racially segregated were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. With that one statement and the subsequent order that the process of desegregation begin with “all deliberate speed,” the world seems to have been turned upside down so far as the schools were concerned.
Based upon that decision, in 1956, a majority of the senators and representatives from the former Confederate states issued what became known as the Southern Manifesto. The manifesto expressed the fact that these officials would do whatever was within their power to prevent the desegregation of the public schools in their states. With this public show of support, all hell broke loose as nine Black students, led by Daisy Bates and the NAACP, enrolled in Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. The rioting there was followed by similar reactions in Clinton, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; Sturgis, Kentucky; and other communities across the old Confederacy.
These shows of resistance discouraged desegregation initiatives in many places were Black people had less support. Some districts followed the pattern of Bolivar County, Mississippi. It issued an announcement stating that if there was any attempt to desegregate any of the schools in the district, all of the schools would be closed. Additionally, several counties in Maryland actually voted to close their public schools rather than desegregate them. Resistance to desegregation was massive.
These examples of massive resistance led to actions by the federal courts to become even more firm in the desegregation effort. It was in this atmosphere that Mississippi’s public schools were desegregated in the case of Alexander vs. Holmes County. No longer was it a matter of Black people having to have the courage to enroll their children in all-white schools. Districts were required to fuse their dual systems into unitary systems. Massive resistance to Black enrollment in the segregated schools was over.
Withdrawal and De-Funding
As a consequence of the court actions, in Mississippi and other southern states, thousands of white parents withdrew their children from the public schools. They established private organizations to operate elementary and secondary schools, accepted donations to operate such schools, and in many cases, “transferred” property and equipment from the public schools to the newly created private schools so that they could hit the ground running. Within months, there were schools such as Jackson Preparatory, Jackson Academy, Bayou Academy, and Tri-County Academy functioning all over the state. For years, they were heavily supported by the Mississippi State Fair. In recent years, the state legislature has devised other ways and means to provide funding.
At the same time, because the public schools had dramatically become predominately Black, white residents voted against school bond issues that were needed to operate the public schools. It happened time and again in community after community. The funding situation deteriorated to such an extent until lawsuits began to be filed alleging state funding discrimination based upon race. This gave rise to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Despite the establishment of the program, the problem of funding remains. That is the case because the program itself has been underfunded 24 of its 26-year existence.
Massive resistance has thus been replaced by withdrawal and de-funding. This plague can be witnessed not just in Mississippi. It is also evidenced from Texas to Florida, from Missouri and Kentucky, to the Gulf Coast.
Busing and non-SouthernResistance
As the school desegregation effort in the south was proceeding under court orders, the situation in the north was somewhat different, especially in the urban areas. Due to neighborhood/housing patterns, the courts often ordered the use of busing to achieve school desegregation. Sadly, the busing of students to schools out of their neighborhoods was opposed, if not totally resisted by many northerners. In Boston, for an example, buses carrying Black children to previously all-white schools were attacked by white citizens with rocks and other objects. The school districts in Chicago and Los Angeles were quietly by-passed by the authorities, with most of their schools remaining as they had been prior to Brown vs. Board of Education rather than being subjected to busing, which they labeled “forced busing.” Many authorities, including judges, began emphasizing the distinctions made for districts that had cases of de jure segregation as opposed to those with cases of de facto segregation. Needless to say, this uncovered the feelings of many non-southerners toward desegregation in the public schools.
By the end of the century, there was less court action and fewer arguments about the matter of desegregation than had been the case in 1954. The battle had ceased because the south had re-segregated through the creation of the private schools which served most white students. In the north, private schools and the adherence to neighborhood school patterns had left the de facto segregated schools as they had been prior to the Brown decision.
Questions/Concerns of Black Activists
The decline in court action did not mean, however, that all was over and forgotten. More than a few Black activists and citizens observed and realized that under the guise of desegregation, Black people had not been unaffected, as in, uninjured. Many Black educators had lost their jobs and Black prospective educators frozen out of the field of teaching. Many Black children had been and continued to be traumatized and mis-educated. Many Black schools had lost their history and heritage. For an example, Coleman High School, which had long been one of the premier Black high schools in the state, was reduced to being a junior high school. The same thing happened to Threadgill High in Greenwood, Oak Park in Laurel, and Thirty-Third High in Gulfport. All around the state, Black schools were reduced in status or closed. In addition, many practices of Black culture were eliminated with the loss of building autonomy. Psychological damage was done to individuals and the culture. Black personhood was often challenged, if not changed, in the process of desegregation. Many activists declared that Black people often lost even the small bit of control they had known over the curriculum and instruction of Black children.
Many activists, observers, and everyday elderly citizens state that from the beginning most Black people had been concerned about the lack of equal funding for the schools attended by Black students. They felt that had the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment been diligently followed, there would have been no need for Brown vs. Board of Education.
Going forward, many of these same Black citizens feel that the Brown decision was not adequately enforced because the historical intent of white society has always been to segregate, dominate, and/or eliminate the education of Black people. They point to how court decisions, whether it was Plessey vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, or others, have been enforced as evidence of the need for Black citizens to gain control of their children’s education. Otherwise, they will be segregated in, dominated through, or even eliminated from genuine education.
Brown vs. Board of Education may have been a noble effort to try and develop a more unified citizenry, one wherein all would begin to see one another as equal brothers and sisters. It may have been perceived as the best tool to ensure equal funding for all students. Yet, it did not protect and ensure that those who operate the systems or enforce the law would function according to the spirit of the law. Many feel that those in power will always seek to find ways and means segregating, dominating, or eliminating Black students and scholars.
As we enter the 69th year of Brown vs. Board of Education, the following questions are critical.
(1) Will state after state continue to underfund the public education while looking for ways to siphon-off money to bolster private, segregated schools?
(2) Will the trend continue wherein white students abandon the public schools while many white leaders undermine them?
(3) Will efforts such as the attacks on critical race theory and Black history and culture continue to characterize the curriculum and instruction in public schools?
Without serious attention to such questions and concerns, May 17, 1954 will merely be another date that students and even historians consider to be just another date to which they need not pay much attention.