‘Shadow of segregation looms’ on 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) was only 7 when the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case that separate but equal was unconstitutional.

Before that, though, Green rode the bus from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to Crestview, Fla., to go to school every day.

“I can tell you what it was like to be in a segregated school and drive by white schools, where the buildings were newer, the buses were newer, where they had the best books,” Green told The Hill.

The lawmaker remembered getting some of those books — which were considered “new” to him and his classmates, even though sometimes the previous student’s name would still be written inside. Other times, pages would be ripped out of the books.

When he entered his senior year, Green transferred from the all-Black W.E. Combs High School to the all-white Choctawhatchee High School.

Green said he was one of just three Black students in a class of 600.

“That’s when I started to realize more of what was going on, what was happening to me,” he said. “Some people were very nice to me, but there were many that were not nice at all.”

Now, 70 years after the landmark ruling, Green and other leading Black voices are concerned that the ruling is slowly being chipped away.

“We’ve come a long way since the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told The Hill in a statement. “But today, the most segregated school systems in America can be directly traced to policies put in place in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.”

The case for change

Before the Brown decision was handed down in 1954, there was Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1892, Homer Plessy, a Black man, refused to give up his seat to a white man on a train in New Orleans. When Plessy was arrested, he contested that Louisiana’s law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but in an 8-1 vote, the court ruled against him.

In 1952, five different cases from across the nation came before the high court. They would all be condensed under Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education explained Tona Boyd, associate director-counsel for the Legal Defense Fund.

“Oliver Brown was the father of Linda Brown, who was at the time trying to attend third grade in a school that was just around the corner from her. But because the school was all white, she was rejected,” Boyd said.

Thurgood Marshall, who would later become a justice on the high court, led a group of esteemed lawyers — Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, Louis Redding, Charles and John Scott, Harold R. Boulware, James Nabrit, and George E.C. Hayes — in arguing the case before the court.

And when they won, Boyd said, it opened the door for changes across the country.

“Brown was a case that was brought to challenge that malignant doctrine that had been endorsed by the court and allowed state sanctioned segregation to be permitted in almost all areas of American life, from public schools to trains, cars, to places of public accommodation,” she said.

“The idea was that [education] would be the first place to strike at the heart of segregation and then from there the dominoes would fall – which is exactly what happened,” Boyd added. “That allowed litigation and laws to be passed that got rid of state sanctioned apartheid across the United States.”

But advocates warn that the remnants of segregation remain scattered across the nation today.

A legacy at risk

“Though segregation is illegal, our schools still remain segregated today,” Jalisa Evans, chief executive officer and founder of The Black Educator Advocates Network, told The Hill. “As white students fled school districts to avoid integration, redlining continued to create segregated schools through housing. Today, schools with large numbers of Black students are underfunded.”

In December 2022, the Education Trust found that districts with predominantly non-white students receive more than $2,000 less per student than predominantly white districts.

In a district with 5,000 students, that would equate to $13.5 million in missing resources.

Advocates also point to recent Supreme Court decisions they say disrupt the 1954 decision.

“While we celebrate 70 years of the first Supreme Court decision to break down Jim Crow in education — and the implications were beyond education — that celebration is dampened by the fact that we now have a Supreme Court that has taken out affirmative action and attacked voting rights,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill.

“If this Supreme Court was sitting in 1954, they probably would have not voted for Brown versus the Board of Education,” he added.

While 70 years may seem like a long time ago, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) points out that many can still remember what it was like to be barred from seeking educational opportunities.

As a child, Beatty attended a segregated school before her father saved up to move the family to an all-white neighborhood for better opportunities.

“My father was not an educated man, but he was a strong laborer and so he worked three jobs in two different states during the year to save up $7,000 because he could not get a loan for that house because of redlining … because of the color of his skin,” Beatty said. “And all of this ties back to education.”

“After he was able to buy that home, garbage cans were set on fire in our front yard, all because we wanted to integrate a school so that me — this little Black girl — could have a proper and adequate education,” she added.

The truth of what families like hers, or what Green endured, could be lost amid politicization of Black history, including Brown v. Board, she said.

“They’re trying to ban the books we can read about Black folks who have been innovative in this country,” Beatty continued. “Those individuals who fought for justice [in] Brown versus the Board of Education, they were doing it for one reason: they were doing it for children.”

“Despite seven decades of progress, the shadow of segregation still looms large in American education and beyond,” she added. “We have to continue to fight for our children today.”

Advocates argue that limiting what students learn is just one way the legacy of Brown is being diminished.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill that segregation can also be seen in things such as the rise in school choice options, or the ability for families to select alternatives to public schools.

Studies show school choice exacerbates segregation in public schools, and today’s schools continue to see segregation at staggering rates.

“The resegregation we are seeing in our schools is by no means isolated,” Horsford said. “It is in fact a part of a much larger effort to deny Black communities access to opportunities in our country.”

“As we mark the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and reflect on our progress over the past several decades, we must urgently confront the efforts to undermine and reverse that progress on our campuses, in corporate America, in the federal government, and beyond,” he added.

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