Civil Rights Milestones Offer Lessons
The landmark legal decision, Brown v. Board of Education, was rendered on May 17, 1954. Fifty years later, campuses and communities are commemorating the decision and its impact on contemporary life. The Harvard legal scholar, Charles Ogletree, has published a riveting book of his reflections, a government commission is staging a variety of activities, and dozens, if not hundreds, of campuses are looking at the Brown decision from many perspectives. I had the opportunity of participating in a series at the University of Kansas, focusing on economic aspects of Brown v. Board of Education. The comprehensive Kansas program looked at economics, politics, the law, the media and other aspects of a Supreme Court decision that was simultaneously revolutionary and conservative.Revolutionary? Brown v. Board of Education was the repudiation of both the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857), which said that Black people had no rights that Whites were bound to respect, and also the Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) that established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” For many the decision was about education, but it was, more importantly about equal protection under the law. With per capita expenditure per pupil varying so widely in local jurisdictions both within states and around the nation, one wonders if we have actually achieved the equal protection that Brown mandated. We have come a long way from separate and inferior, education that included a shorter school calendar, lower teacher salaries, pass-along books and inadequate materials. Yet, if we are brutally honest, we will note that some of the problems of the 1950s remain in education, that the materials and physical plant remain inadequate for inner-city students, and that education, thanks to residential patterns, is resegregating.Conservative? Even as Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren insisted that the doctrine of “separate but equal” be repealed, he also indicated that changes take place “with all deliberate speed” which seemed to be a buzzword for “take your sweet time.” Schools in some parts of the South did not fully desegregate until 1970, 16 years after Brown. States spent millions of dollars resisting desegregation, through litigation and through agitation. In some cases, schools were simply closed in resistance to desegregation. The Supreme Court did not direct states to “do it now,” instead finding a compromise that failed Black students in the short run.Still, a full reading of the opinion in Brown makes it clear that the court had a grasp on some of the issues of economic justice that had to be dealt with when unequal education is provided. Warren wrote, “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.” It is interesting to contrast that opinion with the current movement for the privatization of education, the proliferation of school voucher programs, and the continuing conservative attempts to create another “separate but equal” educational system. It is ironic that even as the Bush administration has established a Brown v. Board of Education commission, its actions fly in the face of Brown, with its efforts to divest itself of this “most important function.”Inequality in K-12 education is partly a function of the way this education is funded. As long as property taxes drive educational funding, there will be gross inequalities. A federal tax that narrowed the gap in per-pupil expenditures might give more students the “equal protection” that will narrow achievement gaps and other racial economic gaps in our society.Brown was the result of 60 years of struggle after Plessy, and the legal landscape is dotted with cases that challenged “separate but equal” in accommodations as well as in education. Thus, it is perhaps inaccurate to say that Brown unleashed a wave of activism, though pictures of the Little Rock Nine attempting to go to school no doubt inspired Freedom Riders and others to hold on. Still, the Brown case has pivotal importance because it attacked the foundation of our nation’s tainted racial history.Commemorating Brown v. Board of Education should not overshadow many of the other milestones that bear commemoration this year. The Civil Rights Act was passed 40 years ago, as was the Economic Opportunity Act. These laws were, in some ways, as revolutionary as Brown, with the EOA representing the central thrust of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation and his War on Poverty. A plethora of programs were established under the EOA, including Head Start, Summer Youth Programs, Neighborhood Legal Services, Foster Grandparents, Senior Centers, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) programs, the Job Corps, economic development programs and other programs. The implementation of EOA programs was not flawless, and tensions that emerged between the poor who were to be served, and the local elected officials who were often self-serving affected the effectiveness of programs in some jurisdictions. Still, the greatest challenge to the effectiveness of the programs was funding and commitment.When Johnson left office, Richard Nixon’s focus seemed to be to dismantle the EOA programs. By 1981, the Economic Opportunity Act was rescinded, though some of its programs remained. There are dozens of studies of the EOA and the programs it spawned, and 40 years after its passage, it is interesting to note the ways these EOA programs encouraged community participation and activity, and, to some extent, empowered community activists.Conservatives demean EOA programs as liberal “tax and spend” boondoggles. But lives were changed because of EOA, just as they were changed because of Brown, and that deserves some commemoration.
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