50th ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATIVE ESSAY – Awarded first place in the national essay contest sponsored by the NAACP in the open, adult division.
A tribute to the generations that struggled for, the legal team that formulated, and the democratic principles that were represented in the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20TH century.
. The significance for educational opportunity and survival.
. The historical importance of the decision to reject segregation.
. Opposition to, and supporters of the struggle, and victories.
. Problems not solved and yet requiring our attention.
A GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY
A critical decision was announced on May 17, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded in the landmark cases, Brown et al v. Board of Education, to declare unconstitutional the separation of school children on the basis of ethnic or national origin. This decision was momentous and controversial. Centuries of struggle by slaves and their descendants against oppression empowered and laid the groundwork for the plaintiff’s flawless legal case. It had to be airtight. It is amazing that this case, brought by lawyers of limited means and connections who were themselves descendants of illiterate slaves, on behalf of a disenfranchised, disinherited, disrespected, demeaned, impoverished, people, was considered by the highest Court of the land. It’s a tribute to the ability of the framework of our democracy to uphold justice. It is a tribute to the persistent courage of a suffering people and the steadfast support of the NAACP, coupled with the brilliant legal strategy and reasoning of the team, led in the end by Thurgood Marshall, that this case was heard and won.
The case remains of surpassing importance and its significance is vigorously debated to this day. The plaintiffs were motivated by the pragmatic issue of educational opportunity versus the oppression of ignorance. Educational opportunity is critical to achieving liberty and justice for all, as well as attaining political and economic empowerment. The descendants of former slaves in America, and the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, understood, given long, cruel past experience, that as long as the ‘white’ community controlled disproportionate wealth and power, the educational segregation of so-called white children and so-called colored children would inevitably relegate children of color to inferior, inadequate, or no education. If all children sat in the same classroom, however, the authorities would find it difficult to not provide parity in textbooks, teachers and facilities for the ‘colored’ children. This remains as true today as it was then.
The vantage point of intervening years helps us recognize that besides the issue of educational opportunity, the over-riding significance of the Brown v. Board decision is the issue of survival versus race conflict and genocide. The historical context informs us that America, despite the media induced lull of the Eisenhower years of the fifties, was actually in an explosive pressure cooker foreseen 100 years ago in the famous insight of NAACP founder W.E.B. Dubois that the overriding problem of the 20th century would be the problem posed by the color line. People of color could not and would not permit refusal and procrastination to continue to deny basic human rights, and ready or not, the march down freedom road was underway. America, including grinning Beaver Cleaver, the bickering honeymooners Ralph and Alice, the laconic suburban Nelson family, the jive caricatures of Amos and Andy, and even the cowboys on the Ponderosa, was on the brink, and an overdue historical moment of decision had arrived. Rochester was about to serve notice on Mr. Benny. Would Mr. Benny take it like a human, rejoice in a newfound relationship, and walk together with Rochester towards the Promised Land? Or would white America lash out in ugly, spiteful, violent repression?
Genocide is a systematic attempt to kill the people, the history and the cultural memory of an entire national, ethnic, or religious group. Genocide is the response of a recalcitrant tyranny to a people whose simple existence exposes the contradiction between an official lie and a terrible truth. America has not escaped witnessing the practice of genocide. Military expeditions rationalized by ‘manifest destiny’ continued to be waged for over five centuries against the people who had been raising their families here for millennia before their land was ‘discovered’ by Europeans. These included the first recorded use of biological warfare and the military strategy of killing entire non-combatant populations using disease, starvation and exposure, as well as cannons and machine guns. The history of slavery here, and its aftermath, over the same period is a similar instance of genocide. It included the use of unmitigated, exemplary terror to acquire and ‘break’ slaves, relentless centuries of destruction of family and cultural bonds, and the reduction of the human rights of victims to nothing. The only right legally associated with a slave was the property right of the Master. Paramilitary death squads, often allied with and even comprised of police and military forces and officials, operated with impunity in America deeply into the 20th century. They exterminated entire tribes of Native Americans. They carried out tens of thousands of tortures and summary executions and terrorist attacks against them and against freed and escaped slaves and their descendants long after slavery was statutorily banned.
But genocide and terror, no matter how virulent, can never be fully successful and must ultimately be defeated. Even while it is being perpetrated, individuals and forces oppose the horror in many ways. An essential tactic of genocide is to separate rather than integrate people. A textbook example is Hitler’s Third Reich and the preliminary steps of separating the ‘gypsies’, the unionists and the Jews from the ‘good patriotic Aryans’. The Nazis first established separate schools for those labeled ‘Jews’ and banned social contact between Jews and gentiles. Then they were segregated in ghettos. Slavery in concentration camps and ultimately the horror of the gas chambers and the ovens followed. An important way to arrest genocide is to defeat this separation at the earliest stage.
There are pivotal moments when the people and the leadership of a nation make decisions that either follow or reject the path of genocide.
One of those historical moments culminated on May 17, fifty years ago, in the historical decision rendered by the Supreme Court. It should be remembered and celebrated with pride by all Americans. Chief Justice Earl Warren grasped the significance of the moment and led the Court to its unanimous and courageous decision that validated the aspirations of the oppressed, and renounced heightened repression. It was a moment when America’s torch of ‘liberty and justice for all’ shined brightly and inspired hope around the world. At that moment, America, by resounding official proclamation, stepped away from the brink of race war and escalating genocide. Who knows what additional horror and guilt America might have incurred had a reverse decision and a stamp of denial been intoned on that day?
Not all Americans supported the decision. Chief Justice Earl Warren was hated and reviled by people unwilling to open their hearts and minds and learn the obvious lesson from the still reeking concentration camps of Europe. President Dwight Eisenhower, who led us to victory in WWII over the Nazis and Fascists, was called a traitor for having nominated Justice Warren. Earl Warren is hated to this day in some festering circles. It is not uncommon even now, to encounter the same racist slurs and subtle deprecations that defiled America’s proud decision to reject legal separation of her diverse people.
The centuries of struggle that preceded and followed that day in 1954 was led and primarily fought by those people of color who suffered most during the period of American slavery and apartheid. And there were honorable Americans of all nationalities who committed themselves, and sometimes their lives, to the movement. There were setbacks and countless tragedies and injustices. And there were stunning victories. Thurgood Marshall, himself a great grandchild of slaves, became a Supreme Court Justice. The right to vote was later won at great cost, and the Jim Crow era of American apartheid was brought to an end. May 17, 1954 was a proud and glorious day for America.
But the struggle is far from over. Sadly, our public schools today are more segregated than they were in 1970. Minnijean Brown, one of the 9 heroically brave girls who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, declared recently, “Dismantling the results of hundreds of years of white supremacy will require more than a Supreme Court decision”. Reg Weaver, science teacher and president of the National Education Association stated, “We should celebrate Brown on its golden anniversary, but our celebration will be a hollow one if we do not insist that our elected officials put an immediate end to the inadequate and unequal funding of public schools that serve poor children… for many children the reality is still separate and unequal.”
Current political and economic threats imperil our nationwide universal public education system, which should be the crown jewel of any nation’s commitment to democracy. Broad funding shortfalls, combined with wide disparities in resources allocation, coupled with fracturing of many communities due to job losses and lower wages, are demolishing any illusion of a fair educational start and a level playing field for the children of America.
Ensuring equal educational opportunity in the face of segregation, and demolishing the color lines that turn us against one another, remain among the tasks confronting us today. We have a long way yet to travel on America’s road to freedom.