Remember Brown v. Board of Education

It was not Victor's owlish glasses that made him smart

Today is the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision, which declared that separate African-American education facilities were inherently unequal and a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of our Constitution.

The landmark Brown decision is a marker for the promise made to emancipated Black American slaves at the end of the Civil War. The ruling helped to fulfill the promise of citizenship and participation in all that the American experiment has to offer.

I paid attention to American history in high school, but the Brown decision was mostly an event and date that we were required to memorize. I have learned that this skeletal mention of history really required a deeper dive. The continual African-American struggle for equality is a history course of its own.

You cannot fully examine Brown without also looking at the Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 Supreme Court decision. The two decisions act as bookends. Homer Plessy was arrested for being seated in a white only train car in violation of Louisiana law. The Plessy case went before the Supreme Court, and is best known as the “Separate but Equal” decision. That singular poor decision codified the constitutional underpinnings of racial segregation from coast to coast.

After Plessy, races could legally be segregated, as long as accommodations were quote-unquote equal. States used the ruling to enact Jim Crow legislation that would disenfranchise Black access to ballots, employment opportunities, housing, free movement, and quality education. Southern states were particularly high achieving at the “separate” part of the standard but woefully lacking (by intention) at making the “equal” portion of the equation balance.

(Coincidentally, the Plessy and Brown decisions were handed down one day short of 58 years apart. That’s 58 years of racial regression when there could have been progress. This is a very great shame, in that it happened while America the powerful rose to world greatness.)

Charles Hamilton Houston is a name that everyone ought to, but relative few do, know. We are all taught who Thurgood Marshall was, and many realize that he argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court. Yet it was Houston—a Black man, dean of the Howard University Law school, and a brilliant lawyer—who was the architect of dismantling the “separate but equal” standard; Marshall was his protege.

Houston served as the first general counsel of the NAACP. Houston believed that the NAACP should litigate and dismantle Jim Crow laws by a laser focus on the inherently unequal government resources and results caused by state-enforced segregation. Houston passed away in 1950, and did not live to see the fruits of his labors validated. Nevertheless, he deserves much of the credit for the Brown ruling overturning the “separate and equal” standard.

Brown v. Board of Education was a precursor to the civil rights resurgence of the 1960s, and ushered in the era of court-ordered school desegregation of the 1970s. Brown set in motion the attempt to remedy financial and educational inequalities, by withholding federal money from states, and forcing student integration for districts deemed segregated and saddled with educational funding inequalities between the races.

My introduction to school integration began when I was in third grade at the Hadley Elementary School in the Massachusetts North Shore seaside town of Swampscott. The town was one of the early METCO partners, busing Boston’s African -American students to suburban white schools. METCO stands for Metropolitan Counsel for Educational Opportunity and is a program still going strong today. METCO began in 1966 and is a voluntary effort providing students of color from under-performing districts the opportunity to attend higher performing suburban schools. An additional benefit is that suburban schools created a more diverse and rich learning environment through the interaction.

Suffice to say that third graders do not have a deep understanding of Supreme Court decisions, segregation, or racism. I had certainly interacted with African-Americans; casually though infrequently. On my first day in third grade, I sat next to a METCO student named Victor. He was not remarkable in stature except for the large glasses he wore that made him look owlish and smart. Being class neighbors, we talked. I could not understand why he would want to wake up at the crack of dawn and bus to our school. I would roll out of bed at the last possible minute and walk the half mile downhill to school, half-asleep and not even really wanting to be there.

It turns out Victor did not understand it any more than I did. The only time I spent with him was in class. He was whisked away to a bus as soon as school let out. It was an attempt at integration and building cultural bridges, and I am glad to have experienced it at my school.

I spent enough time in conversation with Victor that year to realize something important. It was not his glasses that made him smart. That may have been the most important lesson I learned in third grade. We all need to relearn some of what was forgotten, and remember the truly pivotal times in the troubled history of the struggle for Black Americans to achieve their full potential.

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