Years After Brown, the Battle for Integration Continues

The Brown decision represents a symbol of the country we still seek to become.

Editor's note: This blog was originally published on May 16, 2014. Read more about why segregated schooling persists in our interview with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, "Conversations Aren't Enough."

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its ruling on a group of school segregation cases argued by the NAACP and attorney Thurgood Marshall. The cases would become known simply as Brown v. Board of Education. The nation’s highest judicial body ruled that racially segregated education contained inherent inequalities that were detrimental to the development of children. The Court’s unanimous ruling was a historic moment in United States history because the justices articulated an inclusive educational vision for the nation. Their decision was embraced by some individuals and groups, but feared and resisted by others. The Court had spoken, and the integration process began—slowly.

Sixty-plus years after a decision that most believed would transform the American education system, the history of Brown’s impact is still being written. Across the nation, the debate over whether and how districts should promote integration still rages—despite research consistently revealing that attending integrated schools is beneficial to all children.

For example, in Little Rock, Arkansas—the city where, in 1957, the national showdown over the implementation of Brown took place—public school students are currently two-thirds black and Latino, while the majority of the city’s population is white. How did this happen in a municipality that had become symbolic of school integration? In the decades after the Little Rock Nine took their historic steps through the front door of Central High School, white parents funneled their children out of Little Rock School District and into private schools and suburban public schools; children of color remained. Little Rock made efforts to stymie at least some of the white flight, establishing broader city boundaries and magnet schools and drawing districts to blend economically diverse neighborhoods, but integration remained elusive.

A similar version of this story is being played out across the country where schools are steadily becoming more segregated. The challenges of implementing and maintaining integrated schools in Little Rock exemplify how easily de facto segregation can occur, even despite the city’s continuous efforts to ensure that it made good on the promises of Brown. While the nation continues to pay homage to Brown, the reality is that the American public has simultaneously embraced and rejected the historic decision. If the nation is committed to the legacy of Brown, it must also commit to addressing the issues causally associated with de facto segregation—inequitable school funding, busing policies, districting, housing discrimination and school privatization, among others. 

The Brown decision itself is no longer controversial but the ideals it represents—and the modern challenges we face in their pursuit—are considered too radical by some. For example, in the first quarter of 2014, the Supreme Court and a federal judge approved a “settlement” which effectively ended the state aid Arkansas paid to maintain integrated schools in the Little Rock area. After the U.S. District Court’s ruling, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin B. McDaniel stated, “Let’s put this case in the books and move on with being partners in education rather than adversaries in court.” African Americans disagreed with McDaniel because they believed that “the situation is pretty much the same as it was many years ago when we began.”

In many ways, Brown represents a symbol of the country we still seek to become. Decades later, this decision enjoys a place with the critical moments in United States history, but—like many of these moments—the anniversary celebration is tempered by what Brown’s legacy reveals of the true nature of our commitments.

Adams teaches American history at Bard High School Early College in Ohio.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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