BALTIMORE: Since America is always a work in progress, we’re still evaluating the racial effects of Linda Brown’s 1954 visit to the U.S. Supreme Court. But there’s no questioning the triumph she gave to the nation’s conscience.
Brown died the other day, at 75, her name forever linked to one of the most dramatic decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history. It was 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which integrated the nation’s public schools and forever gave the lie to segregationists’ old war cry of “separate but equal.”
The children of different races were separated, all right, but their schools were anything but equal. The buildings for black children were dumping grounds. In the north, they were creaky leftovers from whites who’d moved elsewhere. In the south, they were miserable wooden shacks. Everywhere, black children learned from outdated textbooks and beat-up equipment.
And then Linda Brown’s father tried to enroll his daughter in a white “public” school and was turned away. So he went to the NAACP and enlisted their chief attorney, the young Thurgood Marshall.
Today, Marshall is mostly remembered as the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Back then, he was already in the midst of his very own legend. A product of Baltimore’s segregated public schools, he’d graduated Lincoln University and then tried to enroll in the University of Maryland Law School. They turned him away because of his skin color. So he went to Howard University’s Law School.
By 1954 and the Brown trial, he’d been winning courtroom fights to integrate public colleges around the country. He’d go on to win 26 of 32 Supreme Court decisions over his career. But nothing had the profound effects of the Brown decision – which continue to reverberate today, nearly 65 years since Marshall took Linda Brown to court.
The decision tore away the hypocrisy of “separate but equal” schooling. Now America’s children could sit in the same classrooms, and learn from the same teachers and textbooks – and learn about each other.
For much of the decade following the Brown decision, they learned they could get along just fine – in classrooms, and on playgrounds. This was the American ideal, was it not? The nation’s public schools were integrated.
There were demonstrations, some of them violent, in parts of the south. But, in little time, calm returned to classrooms. The Melting Pot became more than a mere turn of phrase.
But, with the calm, there came an exodus. Whites discovered suburbia. The exodus started right after the war, but the Brown decision speeded everything up. In suburbia, where the housing developments were new, the schools were new, too – and they were white.
By 1960, just six years after the Brown decision, one-third of the country was living in suburbia. The movement from city to suburb was dubbed “the greatest migration in the shortest time in the nation’s history.”
Across much of the 1950s, America’s suburbs grew six times faster than its cities. Nearly all new homes were being built in suburbia. The same was true of schools. In Marshall’s hometown, Baltimore, the city’s population dropped by 8,000 people a year in the decade after the Brown decision. Almost all of those leaving were white. Almost no new city schools were built in that period, while they shot up in surrounding counties.
There were similar patterns across the country.
It’s not fair to attach all of this to the integration of schools – but a lot of it was. Today, countless urban school districts are essentially re-segregated, as millions of white families send their children to private or parochial schools – or continue the exodus to suburbia.
Does that mean the Brown decision failed its intentions? In some ways, no. The high court exposed the lie of “separate but equal” and implicitly said America had been cheating its children of color.
But today, as many city school districts deal with re-segregation, suburban schools face some familiar old patterns – white enrollment slowly dropping, minority enrollment rising. In half a century, have school officials and political leaders – and families – learned nothing about how to deal with race?
America is always a work in progress. The Brown decision poked at our national conscience. We’re still struggling to decide what that means with our public schools.