May 17 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history. Known by its abbreviated title as "Brown versus the Board of Education", the unanimous Supreme Court ruling struck down racially segregated schools and marked a critical turning point in the struggle for civil rights.
In 1950, a black man named Oliver Brown in Topeka, Kansas, made a decision that would forever change American society. He wanted his seven-year-old daughter, Linda, to attend a nearby white school instead of the black school she had been attending, which was poorly equipped and further away.
Eventually, he filed suit against the local board of education and the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was combined with four other similar cases from around the country.
On May 17, 1954, the high court unanimously ruled that the concept of separate but equal schools was unconstitutional, a decision that opened the way for integration of public schools and helped to galvanize the civil rights movement for years to come.
Washington, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that it is hard to overstate the importance of the Brown decision.
?Brown was the most important court decision in the history of the United States,? she said. ?I think that is easy to demonstrate. It was a decision that kept our country from solving a problem that in other countries are often solved by war.?
Delegate Norton was among members of the Congressional Black Caucus who recently discussed the impact of the Brown decision on race relations in Washington.
Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He said that progress has been made since the Brown decision, but that much more needs to be done.
?Throughout too much of America today, public schools remain burdened by the de facto segregation of our time, a racial division that, too often, is nearly as pronounced as legally mandated segregation was half a century ago,? he said. ?We remain, ladies and gentlemen, separate and unequal.?
Racial integration in the schools did not come easily. It took years and, in many cases, decades for schools systems in the South to engage in the process.
In one Virginia county, local officials kept schools closed for five years in an effort to resist integration, but there were problems in the North as well, including the city of Boston where mandated court desegregation of the school system occasionally led to violence.
Though racial segregation is legally a thing of the past, divides remain among white, black, Latino and Asian students based on income and geography.
?So when we see, for example, the re-segregation of public schools throughout the United States on this 50th anniversary of Brown, I ask you not to ascribe that to the failure of Brown,? insists Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. ?Four out of five white students in the United States go to school in the suburbs. One out of five African-American students and one out of four Latino students go to schools in the suburbs. So I ask you, is that a failure of Brown or is that a function of our failure to desegregate the society in which we live? Brown did magnificent things. It is up to us to reform the schools, not the Brown decision.?
Some new polls marking the Brown anniversary suggest most Americans believe race relations have markedly improved since the 1954 Supreme Court decision. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly 90 percent of whites, 73 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics said race relations had somewhat or greatly improved, but the same poll found that 49 percent of blacks surveyed said they experienced some form of discrimination in the past month.
The polls also suggest that more needs to be done to improve American schools for all students. Karlyn Bowman monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
?Black and white Americans feel there is less discrimination in education in American society than they saw in the past,? she explained. ?An Associated Press-Ipsos public affairs poll finds that three-quarters, up from four in 10 in 1971, say that integration has improved the education received by black students. Still, 63 percent of whites and only 31 percent of blacks say that black children have equal educational opportunities with white children.?
Black members of Congress say one of their main challenges is educating young people about how much America has changed in the past 50 years and about what needs to be done in the next 50.
?There is no question that this is the first generation of Americans, young people, who arguably may be less enlightened on race than the generation that came before them because they have not had the kind of experiences,? said Congressman Artur Davis, a Democrat from Alabama. ?I am 36 years of age. I was part of one of the last really integrated generations in Alabama in terms of school kids crossing racial lines and I think it is a loss for our country if our young people, instead of coming together, are beginning to come apart.?
While it is true that the full promise of the Brown decision has yet to be realized, there is no question that the Supreme Court ruling remains a major turning point in the struggle for racial equality here in the United States.