Magazine Feature

Brown Is...

Complete interviews with 14 Americans about the legacy and impact of 'Brown v. Board.'
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Teaching Tolerance asked a number of commentators, activists, educational leaders, politicians and others to respond to a series of open-ended questions about the legacy and impact of Brown v. Board.

Here is the complete text of interview questions and responses. Not all questions were asked of all participants.


How did Brown affect your own education?

Jean AbiNader, board member of the Arab American Institute and former president of the U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce

I attended high school and college in the 60s when Brown v. Board had already had a defining impact on the curriculum and environment in the schools. It was clear by that time that African Americans were to be treated without discrimination and, more importantly, in liberal schools, as people with experiences that were central to our understanding of the U.S. as a nation and a society.

I studied political science as an undergraduate and specialized in intercultural communications. There was a heavy emphasis on correcting the "false" themes of U.S. history that emerged after the reconstruction period. Much of our work tied together our dissent against the war in Vietnam with the social upheavals connected with "black power," the war on poverty, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and other seminal events/trends of the times.

Students from Kansas during segregation
Segregated school, Kansas, 1953. (Photograph by Carl Iwasaki/The Life Pictures)

Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the late Rev. Oliver Brown, namesake of Brown v. Board, and co-founder of the Brown Foundation

Unlike the companion cases in Brown, African Americans in Topeka were not facing the stark disparities found in Southern school districts. In Kansas, only elementary schools in first class cities, those of 15,000 or more, were racially segregated. Secondary education was integrated. Consequently the transition to integrated schools was without drama.

I began my formal schooling in the fall of 1955 in the wake of this change. The only glaring difference was that unlike my mother and sisters I have been educated Kindergarten through graduate school without being taught by a person of color. The lessons learned from that experience were largely about understanding that education is something one does for oneself. I encountered racial bias on the part of white educators.

However, above all else in the wake of Brown I leaned that individual academic achievement has nothing to do with the race or ethnicity of who a student is sitting next to. Individual academic achievement, like other presumed indicators of success, is based on a multitude of variables, race and ethnicity are only factored in if they are used to withhold resources and opportunities.

Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education

I was in my junior year of college, at Jackson State University, in 1954. The psychological impact of Brown v. Board impacted me directly, as it did every other African American in the United States... there was tremendous jubilation, a feeling of finally having arrived ... a feeling that we had overcome a great burden, and that now, the world of opportunity was opening up for us. So, the impact of it for me was more psychological than otherwise.

I'm the oldest of five children. When Brown was decided, my oldest sister was in college, my two younger sisters were in high school and my brother was in middle school. So Brown broadened the opportunities for them in terms of the schools that they could attend.

But keep in mind, the Brown v. Board action was as much uplifting as it was legally enabling, and although my sisters and brothers chose to go to schools that were predominantly of African American heritage, they at least had a choice.

Dan Rather, anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News

The landmark ruling had little if any direct effect on my own education, as I was out of school by that time. Growing up in Texas, I had experienced only segregated classrooms, from my elementary years through my public college education.

I do remember that at the time of the ruling, the discussions I heard tended to follow the question of "How will it work?" as segregated schooling was the only kind of schooling we had known.

Loretta Sanchez, Congresswoman from California

Brown v. Board of Education actually used a precedent-setting case, Mendez v. Westminster Board of Education. This case came out of Orange County, Calif., about six years prior to the Brown case.

Thus, California was desegregated ahead of the rest of the nation. By the time I got to school, they were fairly integrated.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

I was born in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. My life has been very much influenced by that court decision. This is apparent to me because while I come from a long line of African American educators (I am a fourth-generation college professor), my generation is the only generation to have been educated entirely in predominantly white schools.

I have had educational choices throughout my education that were not available to my parents or the generations that preceded them.

Minnijean Brown Trickey, social justice activist and member of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High in 1957

What Brown actually did for me personally was to open the possibility that I could attend the big beautiful school that was 11 blocks from my house. The one, Central High School, with a stadium, a gym, was rumored to house science labs, and everything else. It opened the possibility that I might experience new textbooks.

Brown made me think I could attend Central, because it was there, and I had a right to go to the school of my choice. Brown also forced the reluctant President Eisenhower to act to protect me from the unruly mobs surrounding Central High School, by sending federal troops.

Mike Wenger, special consultant to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies

To the best of my knowledge, the decision did not affect my own formal education. I was in junior high school on Long Island in New York at the time. While our schools were not segregated by law, they were segregated de facto because of residential patterns.

So, I attended schools where the student body was overwhelmingly Jewish and there were no black students at all. In fact, of my high school graduating class of 216 students, 211 were Jewish.

Only as an adult have I come to realize how this de facto segregation deprived me of the richness a diverse study body brings in terms of culture, perspective and experiences.

Juan Williams, journalist, NPR commentator and author of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965

Since I was born in 1954 my whole education is tied to Brown case. I attended public schools in Brooklyn, New York during the 1960s. Those schools were very integrated. It was before the massive white flight from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. I went to schools with Jewish children, Irish children, Italian children and a stunning range of immigrant children from around the world.

But as each year went by the number of white children in the schools declined as the neighborhood became more and more black and brown. That led to arguments between white administrators and black parents as well as a decrease in the number of middle class families in the schools. But those schools gave my sister, my brother and me a very good basis for going on to higher education.

My family (emigrated) from Panama when my sister was about to start high school. Attending those integrated schools in Brooklyn, my sister was able to get such a good education that she went to a top college, Swarthmore and then Harvard. My brother also went to a top school and then NYU Law School. My grades allowed me to earn a scholarship to a private high school and then I followed my brother's footsteps and went to Haverford College.


How, if at all, has Brown v. Board changed opinions about the myth of racial inferiority?

Students in line during segregation
Linda Brown (center) and classmates, 1953. (Photograph by Carl Iwasaki/Time-Life Pictures)

Julian Bond, longtime civil rights activist, former Georgia legislator, and chairperson of the NAACP

Brown has probably done much to diminish feelings of racial superiority, but there's not any evidence I know of that it did so. For African Americans, it reinforced pre-existing assumptions they had of equality with Whites, and gave sanction from the nation's highest court that their long-denied serve for equality was just and right.

Morris Dees, attorney, advocate and co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center

The Brown v. Board decision not only opened doors for minorities to attend white-only schools, but it also helped dispel the myth of racial inferiority as minorities became successful because of expanded educational opportunities.

John Hope Franklin, author, scholar, and James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University

For people who experienced the changes after Brown v. Board and who had the chance to attend desegregated schools and confront their racial stereotypes, they have modified their views. For those who have not benefited from Brown v. Board and desegregated education, myths of racial inferiority persist.

Cheryl Brown Henderson: The circumstances that made a Brown decision necessary were predicated on a belief that African Americans were less valuable as people since historically we arrived on these shores principally as free labor. That system was kept in place by chattel slavery and was justified by suggesting that the plight of people of African descent was divinely ordained to be servitude.

The theory of racial inferiority, espoused by Whites, provided a backdrop for their sense of entitlement and privilege which to be realized, required the imposing of arbitrary restrictions on African Americans.

These restrictions included withholding access to formal education, political participation, land ownership, paid employment and in some cases denying the right to legal marriage. Ongoing acts of violence against African Americans made for reluctance to challenge this artificial hierarchy.

Much like the Truman administration's decision to integrate the Armed Forces, the Brown decision played a pivotal role in addressing the country's image abroad. We could not hold ourselves up as a world leader speaking with a moral voice, when U.S. policy makers were engaged in human rights abuses at home.

Brown began the process of changing attitudes and beliefs about the value of all people by forcing the country to take a critical look at itself.

Finally, within the last decade scholars are researching and writing publications that examine the effects this presumption of privilege has had on generations of Whites in this country.

Brown was an American action. It was an action that impacted the United States of America and all of us. It was good for our nation. It was not just good for the ethnic African American community, but for every community...

Dan Rather: It has changed them tremendously and decisively. And it has changed them in so many ways.

As hard as it is to say, acknowledge, remember, and — for some — to grasp, in the parts of America where segregation was a way of life, it was taken as an almost unexamined fact among Whites that people of African American heritage were in some way mentally inferior. This ugly surmise was accepted and very seldom questioned where I grew up.

Fifty years ago, just about every white person I knew held this view in one way or another; today, I don't think I personally know anyone who believes such a thing.

That's as dramatic and important a change as one could imagine, and it is absolutely clear in my mind that it began with the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Minnijean Brown Trickey: Nothing has truly changed opinions about racial inferiority in the United States. In truth because racial inferiority was embedded in the national psyche, beginning with the indigenous peoples who were already here, continuing with Africans who were imported.

One people provided the backdrop, the land, the actual real estate for Europeans, and the other the labor to build the economy, to exploit that land. The land grab was legal, as was slavery.

Almost as soon as slavery was outlawed, Plessy was ushered in to codify and actually rejuvenate racism. Now that was a well-implemented decision.

Holding it all together was the work of so called social scientists who proffered an entire range of theories and works to validate black inferiority, a whitewashing and retelling the falsehoods of this freedom, justice for all, except undeserving Blacks.

Young people I have the opportunity to speak with around the country, almost without exception, lament the social condition that places them in isolated cultural enclaves. They left home to attend colleges in order to enjoy the possibility of interacting with peers from various cultural groups, only to find themselves somehow relegated interacting only with their "own kind." There is nothing natural about this.

In other words, dismantling the results of hundreds of years of white supremacy required more that a Supreme Court decision. What was, and continues, is the failure of acknowledgement essential for the interrogation of the horrendous toll of racism on all citizens and a concerted effort to unlearn, rethink social relations among groups. There is the constant obsession with race in the U.S., but not racism.

My point is that the decision should have ushered in an entire authentic discussion, training and focus on racism, which would have given all citizens a basis for social change toward a real egalitarian society.

Reg Weaver, former middle-school science teacher and president of the National Education Association

In declaring "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," Brown caused this country to look squarely at such myths.

The Court openly said that providing public education is perhaps the most important function the state performs in our society and emphasized the harms done to students forced to attend racially segregated schools.

It said that separate and unequal facilities deny students of color the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to excel in school and be successful in life.

The bottom line is that all students can and do learn. We're beginning to deal better with how to educate all of our students — adjusting to their different backgrounds and learning styles and finding new ways to motivate them.

This does not happen overnight — and perhaps it took racial integration in our schools to open our eyes to the crucial need for quality teaching and learning for everyone.

Racism has diminished — though far from disappeared — because of the growing achievements by minorities who have had the chance to get a quality education. They set an example for people of all colors that anyone can succeed if given an equal opportunity.

By mandating an end to racially segregated public schools, Brown did much to deflate the myth of racial inferiority, but we've still got a long way to go.

Mike Wenger: I believe the Brown decision has had a profound impact on the myth of racial inferiority. It has raised public awareness about the myth of "separate but equal" being equal, it has empowered people to assert their constitutional, legal and moral rights, and it gave rise to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a decade or more of significant social change throughout the country.

Of course, some publications, most prominently "The Bell Curve," still promote this myth, but fortunately, it is given less credence and challenged more aggressively than it once was.


What other movements, campaigns or causes did Brown v. Board aid or inspire?

Jean AbiNader: Brown v. Board was instrumental in underscoring the need for non-violent protest along with action in the courts and legislatures to change policies to which we were opposed.

For over 40 years, the foreign policy agenda for the Arab American community has focused on achieving a just and viable peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine — linked by normal relations and transactions.

It has been a highly emotional issue at times, particularly when gross violations of human rights occur and Arab lives are lost not only in Palestine but in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Non-violent protests, legislative/judicial actions and public advocacy are the key tools adopted by our community in this country, clearly distancing ourselves from the violence and terror in the region.

I see a strong connection between Brown v. Board and the anti-war movement, with parallels in the Nation of Islam and the Rainbow Coalition — the recognition of how we treat minorities and people of color at home and abroad.

Morris Dees: The Brown v. Board decision was a forerunner, a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Women's Movement.

Cheryl Brown Henderson: The Brown decision served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. These events inspired and energized human rights struggles around the world. As the leader of the free world, what happens in the United States is often emulated by other countries.

Dan Rather: It certainly lent momentum to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. And it led to real versus token desegregation of the United States military.

It paved the way for a black, economic middle class to develop, which was a truly significant change. Before Brown v. Board, the business and entrepreneurial areas open to Blacks were severely restricted — in many places, they were pretty much limited to the mortuary business and insurance, if that.

The decision opened school doors to African Americans — as teachers and students — and it also contributed to opening up whole realms of American society that had previously been closed.

It is important to note that Brown v. Board did not, by itself, open them completely and perfectly, but Brown v. Board was the prybar that began the long and unfinished work of making America a desegregated society. In the realm of voting rights for example, the ruling began to chip away at legalized and de facto racism as the insuperable and unchallenged order of things.

This wasn't just significant within the United States — internationally, it began to engender a whole new way of looking at this country. It literally renewed the face we presented to the world, expanded the vision we projected to one that more truly approached a multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-ethnic republic guided by principles of democracy and freedom.

It was a major step along the path of, to paraphrase Dr. King, this nation rising up and living out the true meaning of its creed.

Beverly Tatum: This court case was part of a legal strategy designed to increase the civil rights of black people, but it inspired other freedom movements and activism of other groups — Latinos, Native Americans, white women, for example.

Ironically, the legal strategy used so effectively in the Brown v. Board case is essentially the same strategy that opponents of affirmative action are now using to eliminate it.

Minnijean Brown Trickey: It was designed for schools, but it created openings to challenge discrimination in every other area, from interstate transportation to voting.

It served to leave a little crack in the door for various movements. It was an impetus of social change, independent of a leader, but based instead on people's own desire and enthusiasm.

Brown set in motion the climate for the Women's Movement and the Peace Movement. It created a climate for potential change. The hope that was in Brown gave people the feeling there was real change coming down the tunnel.

If a whole bunch of white men — rich, powerful white men of the Supreme Court — could see the error of segregation, I think it definitely opened up the possibility that everyone could see some hope in other areas, too.

Mike Wenger: The Brown decision, in my opinion, launched the struggle of African Americans over the next decade and one-half for their constitutional rights.

That struggle inspired a number of other movements, including the movement for Mexican farm workers rights led by Cesar Chavez, who formed the United Farm workers in 1962.

The movements for equal rights for women and for the rights of disabled citizens also can be traced to the civil rights struggles of African Americans, and therefore, to the Brown decision.


How did Brown v. Board affect the civic responsibilities of Americans, including people of color and white people?

Morris Dees: The Brown v. Board decision was a forerunner, a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Women's Movement. It brought attention to the civic responsibilities that citizens share.

In many communities Brown v. Board caused Whites and Blacks to work together to better education for all people. Whereas before Brown v. Board, a lot of Whites really didn't take a personal interest in black education since white children were in segregated schools.

On the other hand, it worked in an opposing fashion: The decision instigated white flight and Whites' abandonment of their civic responsibilities. Private schools were opened, and communities refused to support bond issues.

When you look at Brown you are looking at moment so powerful it is the equivalent of the Big Bang in our solar system.

Cheryl Brown Henderson: The Brown decision defended the sovereign power of the people of the United States to protect their natural rights form arbitrary restrictions and limits imposed by state and local governments.

Twenty-one states had laws that either permitted or required racially segregated public schools. These rights originate with the Declaration of Independence and are guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

Brown led to a critical understanding that government cannot legislate beliefs but it most certainly can legislate behavior.

The NAACP's legal campaign and the court's decision asserted the rights of African American people to be full partners in social, political and communal structures of this country. Out of this assertion came the rights of all other historically disenfranchised groups.

Mike Wenger: The Brown decision changed the thrust of our legal system by overturning more than 50 years of Plessy v. Ferguson, empowered people who historically had been relegated to second-class citizenship, created a spirit of common cause and common sacrifice among people of color and many white people, especially young people, and inspired the leadership of Dr. King and others, including white people like Walter Reuther, then head of the United Auto Workers Union, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, both of whom were prominent speakers at the March on Washington in August, 1963 where Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.


Are students better off today than before Brown v. Board?

Julian Bond: With all that is said above, the answer is yes — on balance. But studies show school segregation is increasing steadily as the courts have abandon Brown. There is ample evidence of this available from Harvard University's Civil Rights Project and the work done there by Professor Gary Orfield.

Morris Dees: American students are better off. We faced a very difficult issue and attempted to solve it. Even with the good that came from the Brown v. Boardthere is a negative backlash in that more private schools have been formed and white flight initiated a shift in neighborhood living patterns paving the way for re-segregation of schools.

Not everything is perfect today. Brown v. Board was a precursor to many of today's challenges. We have housing pattern changes and re-segregation of schools caused by white flight.

John Hope Franklin: They are better off. More of them have equal opportunities for education; they are exposed to people they have not been before; they can be more objective and humane, recognizing that people of a different background are not "monsters."

Of course, there are all kinds of other factors that affect educational opportunities and quality; but in terms of desegregation, the effect is positive.

Cheryl Brown Henderson: Yes, all people have in some ways benefited from this decision. Although issues of achievement persist, they are born largely from poverty and schools within certain areas that lack basic resources to accommodate students whose backgrounds have left them behind in terms of preparation for formal education.

It requires a greater investment of teacher talent, fiscal resources, access to technology, mentors and individualized attention to close the gap for students in this situation.

Ultimately the Brown decision afforded all citizens more choice and freedom in their daily lives. Brown set legal precedent for other cases heard by the Supreme Court as well as civil rights legislation (that) focuses on race and gender equity.

Rod Paige: Of course students are better off, because opportunities are broader rather than restricted. So, in the sense of legal opportunities, they are better off.

Yet there are still challenges for a child who doesn't have an effective early education; that child is still disadvantaged.

Beverly Tatum: Certainly having legal access to the well-funded schools often found in white communities is better than being legally denied access.

However, it is important to say that many adults who grew up in segregated schools often cite the high expectations communicated to them by their black teachers, and the positive learning environment that they experienced.

Regrettably many of those black teachers were displaced when school districts merged the historically black schools with the historically white ones, and students of color sometimes find themselves in unwelcoming or even hostile learning environments.

Racially mixed schools are sometimes "resegregated" through the use of tracking within the school, and those students who are relegated to dead-end classes, and subject to low teacher expectations, may not reap the full benefits of their legal access.

Reg Weaver: The opportunities to learn are certainly broader today than in 1954. We have made progress in boosting the academic achievement of African American students.

Between the mid-1970s and the end of past century, black high school students raised their graduation rates to 80% and increased their college enrollment rate by more than 40%, and they had the single largest improvement of any ethnic group in reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card.

Educational possibilities have opened up not just for African American students, but also for all students regardless of color, gender, income, geography, special needs, native language, or immigration status.

School integration has enriched the educational experience of all of our children by teaching them to understand and appreciate diversity.

Even though Jim Crow in our schools is dead, the reality is that millions of African American, Hispanic, and other minority children still go to segregated schools and receive an education inferior to that received by most white children.

Many schools in urban and rural areas are in critical condition — buildings are crumbling and overcrowded, too many teachers are uncertified, class sizes are too large, and student achievement is dismally low.

Several years ago, I did an exchange between my students in Harvey, Ill. and students in a public school in a wealthier Chicago suburb called Naperville.

My students were shocked to learn what the Naperville school had: air conditioning, no water pipes breaking, clean bathrooms that work, security, a gym, a nice cafeteria. And when these children finished visiting this terrific school and community, they asked me, "Do we have to go back where we live? Why can't our school and neighborhood be like this?"

At suburban schools across the country, children of every race and ethnicity walk through the same front door. But, too often, they walk down different corridors — and sit in separate classrooms.

Too often, minority children find themselves in special education and non-college-bound classes. Many minority students are still not graduating with diplomas and are dropping out of high school in disproportionate numbers. For many children, the reality is still separate and unequal.

Yet today we impose the rigors of high-stakes tests on our students through measures such as the so-called "No Child Left Behind" Act, while denying schools the resources that students and educators need to meet the new standards.

Are students better off today? In many ways, yes, but we still have not fulfilled the promise of Brown by providing every child the opportunity to attend a great public school.

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.

Mike Wenger: Certainly, the decision made a profound difference in the South. Even though many schools are still segregated because of residential patterns, and even though desegregation of schools did not necessarily mean integration of the student body within a school, public education for black students has improved.

However, it has not all been positive. Despite the inferior facilities and equipment in segregated black schools in the South, teacher expectations and attention to the needs of black students fostered better performance in the schools.

In many cases in desegregated schools, the predominantly white faculty has lower expectations for black students and less interest in teaching to their needs, thus negatively affecting the performance of these students.

So, as important as the Brown decision was, we still have a long way to go to get the point where public education for students of color is equal to that for white students.

Juan Williams: Today black and Latino students live in a different America than the nation that existed at the time of Brown. The nation's neighborhoods and public schools are more segregated in many areas than they were before Brown.

In the big cities, especially in the northeast and the Midwest, there is a far higher number of black and Hispanic students. At the same time, white families and their children have left urban neighborhoods and schools. The result is that most black and Latino students are in schools that are made up of most minority students.

In addition, the schools under the most pressure to deal with poverty's impact on children are usually those minority-dominated schools in the cities.

But I would argue that even those students are better off than before Brown. Spending on those schools is far higher than the spending on segregated black public elementary and secondary schools before Brown.

The cultural acceptance of inferior schools for black and brown children is gone. Americans know this is wrong. The problem is that people close their eyes. But legal action and public policy arguments rage today over how to improve those schools.

That is why the controversy over vouchers, charter schools and the use of magnet schools is at the center of any discussion of public education in America today.

In addition, don't forget the public schools outside those big cities. Hispanic and black students are in those schools today. Fifty years ago their attendance would not have been possible.


We often think of Brown v. Board in a black/white context. How has the decision affected other minority and immigrant groups?

Jean AbiNader: Brown v. Boardmakes it possible for immigrants and refugees to enjoy rights that someone else fought for. In other words, we're now protecting what we already have and building on it — this was made possible by Brown v. Board.

In this country, Arab Christians are the majority and Arab Muslims are the minority, a reversal of the situation in the Arab world.

Yet community groups, national organizations, cultural events, and many other activities, programs, and projects celebrate the diversity of the community that is comprised of more than 12 nationalities and many more ethnic groups. Respect for minority rights is greatly valued and treasured in our community.

Julian Bond: (Gary) Orfield's work (with Harvard's Civil Rights Project) shows that black students in Alabama and Mississippi are attending schools that are more integrated than Hispanic students in Los Angeles.

Rod Paige: I think it has affected not only other minority groups and immigrants but also the majority population.

I think Brown was an American action. It was an action that impacted the United States of America and all of us. It was good for our nation. It was not just good for the ethnic African American community, but for every community, even Anglos who attended schools that had shut out that part of the world.

Loretta Sanchez: All Americans, both new and more established Americans, have been affected by this court decision. The fact that new Americans are not classified and put into particular schools speaks to that fact.

In Orange County alone, we have children from homes where the primary language spoken is one other than English. At last count, there were 93 different languages being spoken around the county.

Beverly Tatum: The principle of equal treatment under the law applies to all. Certainly the Civil Rights Movement spread to include other people of color.

However, as we know, the efforts to desegregate the schools have waned and there is a steady trend toward resegregation that impacts black and Latino students, in particular.

Juan Williams: Immigrants have felt the impact of Brown intensely. In the big cities, immigrants — especially Latinos — have added to concentration of minorities in urban school systems.

Hispanic children, according to the latest statistics, are now the most segregated group of public school children in the nation.


How did Brown v. Board affect historically black colleges and universities, as well as other African American social institutions, businesses and houses of worship?

Julian Bond: Over the long haul it many actually have hurt some black colleges — by opening the doors of white schools, it allowed a black brain-drain of students and eventually faculty to occur, weakening these schools considerably.

It undoubtedly hurt black public school teachers and principals — not the decision itself, but the perverse way the white South unwillingly, grudgingly and reluctantly permitted it to be enforced.

They insisted on closing black schools and transferring black students to white schools. The latter preserved history, names, school colors and traditions and personnel while the former lost all of that. (There is an academic study of the losses in North Carolina — they were considerable and frightening — I'm sorry I do not recall a source.)

Lost were prominent middle class figures in black communities across the South, and with it a loss of talent, inspiration, leadership, knowledge, history — a loss no community should have been made to endure.

John Hope Franklin: Black students have broader choices. Though HBCUs have been adversely affected. For one, because many black scholars (like myself) have moved away. This deprives the students at HBCUs of the talents and services of black faculty.

I was teaching at Howard University at age 32 and wondering if I'd reached the top of my career because there were many black scholars in senior positions.

I had received my Ph.D. from Harvard University, but before Brown v. Board, I could only teach summer schools at Harvard, Cornell and Berkeley, as a token. In 1956, I received a permanent appointment at Brooklyn College (which was 98% White) as Chair of the History Department. I found the climate much improved.

After Brown v. Board, many Whites rushed to the view that there'd be no need for black colleges.

A white professor at Duke University met me at the library (I was teaching at North Carolina College for Negroes then), said to me: "You're for desegregation, you'll be out of a job soon."

My response was: "Well, maybe I'd get a job at Duke." [Professor Franklin is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History.]

Brown v. Board did not affect houses of worship much, but there was significant impact on libraries and newspapers. Black newspapers like Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the Norfolk Journal and Guide used to have major distribution in cities across the nation.

When white newspapers started to carry black news sections (which were sometimes left out from papers for white readers) and were later integrated, the influence of black newspapers began to decline.

Brown v. Board also has significant effect on libraries — Blacks gained access to libraries and information. Books by African American writers and new subjects, like black history and literature, have been added.

Increased knowledge about different cultures makes for better understanding among races and ethnicities.

Beverly Tatum: Though it was not instant, the 1954 decision opened new doors of educational opportunity for black students. (As a case in point, both of my parents attended Howard University, but all four of their children attended traditionally white institutions.)

Many historically black colleges faced new competition for its students from those predominantly white institutions that had previously excluded them.

In the case of Spelman College, that period both challenged and strengthened the institution.

Strong presidential leadership during that transitional period built Spelman's competitive edge — enhancing faculty development, creating new resources for scholarships, expanding facilities, creating a college capable of attracting applications from more than 4,400 talented black women, competing for 525 spaces in our incoming class.

However, not every HBCU has fared as well, and some have struggled to stay open with declining enrollments.

The 1954 decision and the accompanying Civil Rights Movement increased employment and other kinds of opportunities. Many social organizations that were once all white are now "integrated."

However, these changes are limited by the fact that residential segregation has largely persisted for African Americans. White flight continues to be a reality in urban/suburban communities, and worship services continue to be highly segregated — even black people who live in predominantly white communities often choose to travel to other locations to attend a church with a black congregation.

Reg Weaver: People now have more choices. We continue to have great pride in the achievements of historically black colleges and universities and other African American institutions and businesses.

Many have weathered tremendous hurricanes — including a brain drain of some of the best students who, because of Brown and actions since, have had the chance to attend traditionally white colleges and universities.

Today, minorities have choices in where they go — which college, which business, which church, and so on. This is fine.

At the same time, historically black institutions have adapted by opening their doors wide to people from diverse backgrounds — look at universities in the South with increased enrollment of students of white, Asian and other racial ancestry.

The benefits of diversity in educating our students — for the students themselves and for society as a whole — cannot be understated.

That's why many businesses, military leaders, schools, and educators expressed their support for affirmative action at the University of Michigan and in the rest of nation in brief after brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.


Brown v. Board was not easily implemented, and schools in many areas have gone from integration to resegregation. Do you think we're still resisting the spirit of Brown v. Board? If so, how?

Julian Bond: Yes. The court is still Brown resistant.

John Hope Franklin: I think so. For example, after the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg opinion (for busing) was rescinded (in 2001), there has been a return to neighborhood schools, effectively returning to segregated schools that follow housing segregation patterns.

Even in Durham where I live where there is significant desegregated housing, still, many parents send their children to segregated schools by choice. Durham Hillside High School is 85% black, and this is 2003!

Cheryl Brown Henderson: Implementation whether it is of a court decision or legislation is a matter of interpretation. In 1954 and today the issue remains ensuring equal opportunity for all people. How those opportunities are provided is a matter of interpretation.

It is unlikely that schools in this country will ever be 100% equal. This truth exists for several reasons.

First, the method of financing schools lends itself to disparity in resources. Secondly, student/teacher ratio and class size influences educational outcomes.

Thirdly, having or not having access to state of the art facilities, up to date curricular materials and technology equates to an uneven playing field. One has only to read books like Savage Inequalities where author Jonathan Kozel who writes about his research and visitations of schools across the country. The differences he found were in fact "savagely unequal".

Dismantling the results of hundreds of years of white supremacy required more that a Supreme Court decision.

Rod Paige: I think the most devastating segregation now is the division among the academic accomplishments of children.

It's among those kids who have the academic foundations to learn and those who do not. It's among kids who have access to early cognitive development programs and those who do not. It's among those children who have solid parental support for their literary pursuits and those who do not.

In short, the issue now is not so much whether or not you're sitting in a classroom with members of other ethnic communities, but whether you are sitting in a classroom equipped with the academic tools and the work ethic, and learning skills to take advantage of that circumstance.

Dan Rather: First, I think it is perhaps more accurate to describe what we've had in this country, in most places, as "desegregation" rather than "integration." And there are certainly ways in which it is being resisted still.

The phenomenon of "white flight" from America's inner cities and inner-city schools is one way that gains of been reversed, in a de facto way.

The tremendous expansion of private education is another — while segregation is not the stated aim of private schools, there seem to be many where it is, decidedly, a consequence.

Loretta Sanchez: In California, I have noticed that people choose to live, or end up living, in neighborhoods according to ethnicity, essentially making very segregated communities. Therefore, local schools seem to reflect this lack of diversity.

I don't think it is a purposeful resistance to the Brown case, but nevertheless it is happening.

Beverly Tatum: Yes, the resistance is visible in the continuing pattern of residential segregation.

However, we can also see increased comfort with interracial interaction as seen in the growing numbers of multiracial families, and the greater diversity in the workplace.

So, in my opinion, progress has been made since 1954.

Minnijean Brown Trickey: Brown was not implemented, certainly not as well as Plessy, for the reasons stated in my other answer. The groundwork was not done. Why are we surprised that segregation remained in neighborhoods, schools, jobs, etc.?

My own hometown, Little Rock, Arkansas remains a segregated society, with few businesses in the requisite "hood", and all the action and business development happening in the suburbs.

In addition, with the release of the Board of Education from the desegregation consent decree, schools are now being built in suburban areas, which will have the effect of black inner city schools, and all white suburban schools. This is happening across the country as courts release community boards of education for their de-segregation plans.

Reg Weaver: Yes, in some ways. First, there is still litigation around school desegregation, with some cases filed years ago to desegregate racially separate school systems.

For example, in my own state of Illinois, a court just last year accepted a settlement agreement for the Rockford public schools that will scuttle the decades-old desegregation plan put in place after years of litigation.

NEA continues to work with civil rights lawyers for the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund on litigation of school desegregation cases in places such as Alabama.

Second, national trends show racial resegregation is growing both among our public schools and within some schools. The well-respected Harvard Civil Rights Project found that after decades of decline, the percentages of students attending predominantly minority or predominantly white schools since the mid-1980s have risen sharply.

Now more than 36% of our two largest ethnic minority student populations — African Americans and Hispanics — attend schools where more than 90% of the students are ethnic minorities.

Disproportionate numbers of racial minorities, especially African American boys, are placed in special education. And vouchers and other schemes were used to circumvent Brown in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and 50 years later, they're back.

Mike Wenger: Clearly, in many schools there continues to be resistance to the spirit of Brown.

The system of tracking within schools, the stark differences in facilities and equipment between schools with predominantly white student bodies and those with predominantly students of color, the persistence of white private schools in much of the South, and the continuing failure to teach American history in an accurate and complete way, all testify to a continued resistance to true equity in education.

Furthermore, as bussing and other methods for achieving desegregation have been abandoned, we've been too quick to simply throw in the towel rather than seek new ideas for creating a just and unified society.


Brown v. Board happened 50 years ago. Where will we be, in terms of integrated education and other issues raised by Brown v. Board, in the coming 50 years?

Morris Dees: Fifty years from now a lot of the problems will have disappeared. As minority students get an opportunity for better education and integrating themselves as professionals into society, there will be less resistance to going to school with people of color.

Eventually, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will think it is quite ordinary.

We must remember that the Brown v. Board decision wasn't that long ago, only 50 years. Race is a very intractable issue in this country. It will remain so as we see cultural and ethnic shifts in our population.

Brown v. Boardtaught us early lessons on how difficult it is to implement policies that are formed to support a diverse population, not just one group of people.

As our country grapples with population shifts, further social division may arise, especially as the Anglo population becomes a smaller proportion of the total.

Tolerance education will grow in importance as groups will want to more narrowly define policy to support their particular populations rather than to structure reforms to benefit all Americans.

The most important thing people can do today is support public education and not take the easy way out by abandoning public schools. We must value a diverse public school system because we live in a multicultural world.

John Hope Franklin: I can't foretell the future. But it seems to me the country is becoming more conservative, and there are more resistances to change.

I'm not too optimistic. (I'm of two minds about the recent Supreme Court decisions; the 5-4 votes mark a very precarious balance that can change easily with new Justices appointed to the court.)

Rod Paige: I think the No Child Left Behind Act is the logical next step to Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown cleared the legal path to kids' opportunities. Now we must strengthen their academic skills, and the foundation and framework to accomplish that is embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Dan Rather: I believe that what has been set in motion will inevitably move forward.

There will be times when progress may seem slower than at others, or when there will be a step back for every two steps forward; but I have no doubt that 50 years from now my children and grandchildren will live in an America that is far more desegregated than it remains now — which is in turn far more desegregated than even the pioneers of ending segregation may have foreseen 50 years ago.

More than 200 years of history have proven again and again that Americans have a capacity to adapt to change that exceeds that of any people in history. It is this perhaps more than anything else that gives me optimism about the future legacy of the ruling that changed so much half a century ago.

Beverly Tatum: Though there is much work to do, the increased diversity in higher educational settings (and the Supreme Court's support of diversity as important to the educational environment in the University of Michigan case) along with increased diversity in the workplace creates opportunities for adults to work together across lines of difference.

This greater interaction provides opportunity for greater cross-racial understanding, and the hope that some of the residential segregation will begin to break down. When neighborhoods integrate, schools will naturally follow.

The growing divide between the rich and the poor is of concern, however. The poor (regardless of race) are increasingly socially isolated, and while this isolation is a problem for poor Whites, it is even more difficult to overcome for poor people of color.

The socioeconomic divide seems to be getting worse and does not bode well for our society.

Minnijean Brown Trickey: Same answer. Look at this nation, the richest and "mightiest" in the world. Do we care at all about social conditions? What would persuade us to believe that we would care about segregation? It is our way of life!

Reg Weaver: I envision that the horizons of opportunities before us now will expand further as the students of today take advantage of their educational opportunities and make their mark on our society.

But the benefits of Brown, of racial diversity in our schools, of having expanded opportunities do not come automatically. It takes action by people — our students, our parents, our educators, our policymakers, our public.

As a country, we are at a crossroads, just as we were 50 years ago. 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.

NEA is marshaling its resources and mobilizing its members like never before to help realize the dream of Brown that every child in the United States has access to a quality public education.

Juan Williams: Public confidence in public schools, especially big city schools that serve minority students, is low. I think we are entering a period when race and class combine to determine your educational outlook.

Minorities with the money to move to better school districts in the suburbs will see their educational opportunities expand. They will also create opportunities for integration in the suburban schools. But poor minority students will remain in urban school districts.

Exceptional students, who have the benefit of involved parents, may get into charter schools; some may get vouchers or find a path to private schools. But those who remain in the big city schools will find them very black and brown and very segregated.


Was Brown v. Board worth it?

Julian Bond: Yes, it was. But the result could have been better had not the resistance been so strong and the commitment so weak.

Morris Dees: Yes. It opened so many more doors other than education, such as unbiased treatment in state police forces.

It was worth it in the education field. It stopped segregation and began the long process of having a multicultural, diversified public school system.

Cheryl Brown Henderson: I cannot speak for those whose lives changed significantly because their families took a stand against racist policies. Particularly those in the companion cases from the South.

For the organizers and plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliot, South Carolina, their sacrifice was great. The loss of jobs, having their homes destroyed and churches burned to the ground. For those in Davis v. Prince Edwards County School Board, Virginia, having white county officials close public schools for five years adversely affected numerous lives.

Ultimately "power concedes nothing without a battle". Many of these brave individuals are still living and have proudly said the strife was worth it when one considers the national impact of their actions.

Juan Williams: Absolutely. When you look at Brown you are looking at a moment so powerful it is the equivalent of the Big Bang in our solar system.

Brown not only triggered radical changes in schools but it was a singular event that prompted heightened expectations for equality among black and white Americans.

That prompted the Civil Rights Movement of the late 50s and 60s, the greatest social movement this nation has ever seen.

Brown led directly to the president sending troops to protect black students who wanted to attend Central High School in Little Rock. It led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It led to sit-ins and bus rides and freedom marches.

And even today, as we argue about affirmative action in colleges and graduate schools, the power of Brown continues to stir the nation.


What can someone do today, with regard to the issues of Brown v. Board, to make a difference?

Jean AbiNader: Brown v. Board demonstrated that activism does not only mean being in the streets.

It means that all of us, as voters, parents, students, immigrants, workers, clergy, educators, etc., can all make a difference in our own way if we participate, organize and mobilize.

Loretta Sanchez: If one wants to ensure that the spirit of Brown continues, one should volunteer their skills and time to help all our children succeed. Our kids need to see us in the class environment helping.

Beverly Tatum: Work to interrupt the cycle of racism and classism. Challenge the stereotypes about people of color.

Teachers in particular can actively embrace multicultural education in their classrooms, and encourage their students to think critically about the stereotypes they see in the media.

Work to create opportunities for dialogue about these issues in their communities and houses of worship. Those are just a few ideas.

Minnijean Brown Trickey: Education, of course, for all citizens! It is tragic that young people especially have no idea of the desegregation struggles, and why they were waged.

Apparently, individual teachers teach about the civil rights issues, but there is no grounded required curriculum that deals with those crucial social change struggles.

However, we know about all the wars. The commitment to education in this country is secondary to military actions and spending.

We should think about our real societal values. Maybe we should begin to "democratize" the U.S., by making a true commitment to education for all people.

We don't have space to deal with the nature of true leadership necessary to solve many of these problems. We might begin with educating the decision makers, the power people.

Photograph by Joseph Scherchel / Time-Life Pictures

'A Testament To The Power Of Justice'


Participant Gary Locke, governor of the state of Washington, did not respond to specific questions but instead prepared a general statement regarding the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Here is the complete text of that statement:


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka is obviously one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century. The decision struck a fatal blow against institutionalized racism in public schools. Its significance as a turning point in America runs even deeper.


Brown recognized the complexity of racism and the profoundly permanent effects of segregation on minority students — what Thurgood Marshall referred to as the "badge of inferiority."


Brown also attacked a pernicious, cowardly and inhumane practice — the physical separation of a segment of our society solely because of race. This same mentality led to the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and can be found elsewhere in our history.


The Brown decision elevated public debate on the harms of segregation, and arguably forced a more responsible view of past mistakes and what we can learn from them.


The Brown case was an inevitable culmination of the public outcry against blatant inequalities in segregated education. Court cases from several states were working their way up to the Supreme Court, challenging segregation. These cases were consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education.


The facts in Brown painfully dramatized the cruel and wrong results worked by segregation.


Linda Brown, a seven-year-old 3rd-grader, lived a safe seven blocks from an elementary school. But it was a white elementary school, so she was required to walk six blocks to a bus stop, crossing a hazardous rail yard, then take a one hour and 20 minute bus ride to get to the black elementary school some 21 blocks from her home. Her case shamefully dramatized a practice that was required by law in 17 states and the District of Columbia.


Chief Justice Earl Warren, new to the Court, was a former governor of California. Beyond his legal expertise and stature as a jurist, he was also a highly pragmatic and effective politician. Warren's ability to persuade his eight fellow justices to support a unanimous decision — and a single opinion in the case — was important to its impact.


The concise, direct nature of Warren's opinion also reflects this highly pragmatic approach. Warren believed segregation was wrong, and understood that the decision in the case must be supported by a forceful, unequivocal and well-reasoned judicial opinion that spoke for the Court in a unified voice. His opinion in Brown stands as a model in simplicity and clarity.


We have continued to struggle as a nation in battling discrimination since Brown. One of today's most prominent inequalities in education is the wide disparity in achievement between low-income minority students and white students.


The battles have changed since Brown, but the stakes are the same and they are very high. Equality in public education is a birthright, and we must continue in our efforts to close this achievement gap.


Just as Brown made historic progress 50 years ago, today we have an important opportunity — and a moral responsibility — to advance the cause of equality in our schools.


And perhaps that's the lasting and most inspiring legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. The decision reminds us that no matter how institutionalized a wrong is, and no matter how difficult it will be to remedy the problem, it all begins by standing up and saying "This must change."


Brown is a lasting testament to the power of justice and individual responsibility in a democracy.