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Landmark Desegregation Ruling Marks 60th Anniversary

  • Deborah Block

Sixty years ago, the highest court in the United States changed the face of education. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

At the time of the ruling many school systems -- especially in the southern states -- had separate schools for white and black students. The decision overturned a previous ruling in 1896 which had allowed what it called "separate but equal' black and white public schools. This time, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the US Constitution.

The Court's decision, in a case called Brown vs the Board of Education, actually involved five separate lawsuits with different plaintiffs, but the proceedings centered on Linda Brown, an African-American from Kansas, who was forced to attend a black school across town, despite living a short distance from a white school.

“Brown essentially ended American apartheid... if by that we mean the process by which the government officially classifies people by race,” said Aderson Francois, a law professor at Howard University in Washington.

But Francois said the ruling was flawed since it did not set a deadline. Some segregated schools in the south took advantage of the loophole by failing to comply until the 1960s.

And, even now, many schools are still effectively segregated. A 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California indicates that many schools are less diverse than in the past four decades -- because of socioeconomic factors, housing segregation and court cases that have rolled back enforcement efforts.

That does not surprise Jeanette Taylor, who came to Washington with education activists to call on officials to stop putting more money into predominantly white schools than those with large numbers of minority students.

“It’s a two-tier system where black and brown children are disinvested in, and so we’re here today to tell them to stop pushing bad policies,” said Taylor.

Jitu Brown, who works to improve schools, said there’s still separation along racial lines.

“High schools where they don’t have any advanced placement classes, in the same city where children from more affluent communities, often not communities of color, have curriculum comparable to college preparatory schools,” said Brown.

And it does not help, he added, that the Supreme Court recently upheld the state of Michigan’s ban on racial preferences in university admissions. Education officials say the number of blacks has declined at universities in states with similar bans.