Fifty years ago, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, organized a legal fight against school segregation. Black parents of elementary school students in five different states sued their local school boards. Oliver Brown's suit against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education became the lead case. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown in 1954, many white communities protested furiously, but integration had become the law of the land. Fifty years later, though, some schools are still segregated - not by law, but by other circumstances. And some civil rights advocates say they're still unequal, as well.
It's a typical Friday night in Topeka. Visitor Washburn Rural plays Highland Park High School in a close girls basketball game. A glance at the players, cheerleaders, and fans shows a white team against a black team, though the Highland Park team does have one white player. The school, located in a working class community of Topeka, is three-quarters minority equally divided between African-American and Hispanic students.
After the game, the Washburn Rural players will get on a bus to head back to the suburbs, where their school is surrounded by colonial style homes and wheat fields, and there are only a handful of black students in the classrooms. But basketball player Amanda Prosser says her friendships cross the color line.
"I think I would've been really secluded without basketball," she says. "I really don't think that I'd have had that many black friends if I wouldn't have been playing sports and wouldn't have been involved in sports?"
Thanks to her involvement last summer with a community league team, which draws players from all over Topeka, about half of Amanda's friends are black. Emily Bertel, another Rural student, has no close black friends, but she thinks when she goes to college next year things will be different.
"I think it will be interesting to experience other cultures a lot more than we have," she says. "Maybe I won't be friends with all black people - I'm not saying that - but I think I will have more contact with other races."
Back at Highland Park, the white students are the minority, and you're as likely to hear Spanish in the hallways as English. The school sits in East Topeka, a racially mixed neighborhood of small homes and businesses with signs in Spanish. Jordan Hymon, who leads the school pep band, says that, in spite of the opportunity to have a diverse circle of friends, students still segregate themselves.
"You still got, in the lunch room, white kids here, black kids here, Hispanics here. It needs to be a big melting pot, we haven't gotten there yet," he says.
"There's no problem with you choosing to hang out with African-Americans if you're African- American, " says Cheryl Brown Henderson. She has a unique perspective on the Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation in schools.
"Brown v Board was not about sitting next to white children. It was about having educational resources so that you could have the best opportunity possible," she says.
Cheryl Brown Henderson's father, Oliver Brown, joined a class action suit organized by the NAACP against the Topeka school board in 1950, on behalf of his daughter Linda, Cheryl's older sister. Because Mr. Brown was the only male parent, his became the lead case. The Supreme Court combined the Topeka suit with cases in 4 other states, and on May 17, 1954, decided that states could no longer maintain "separate but equal" public schools. In 1988, Cheryl Brown Henderson started a foundation in her family's name to better teach the history surrounding the ruling, and to help continue working towards equal education.
In the ongoing dialogue on race and education today, segregation and equality are still key issues. It doesn't concern Ms. Brown Henderson that Emily, the college bound student from Rural, doesn't have black friends she calls up and hangs out with. She says the country is too focused on numbers.
"The likelihood that every school in this country would be numerically racially balanced is not going to happen," she says. "I think the most important thing that we can look at any school district and say children are getting a quality education. And that they're getting a world class education."
Today, civil rights organizations say that students in many American public schools are not getting a quality, world class, or even equal education. They point to a variety of reasons, like inconsistent standards for hiring teachers and low pay. Plus, these critics say teachers are not specifically trained to help minority students in urban environments. Highland Park junior, Jordan Hymon, thinks some teachers just give up.
"They have a preconceived notion about us before they even come in the classroom," he says. "'Oh, these kids they'll never be nothing. They're in the hood, in the streets, and they're never gonna be educated, never gonna go anywhere with their lives.' They just gotta give you a chance. You know. Preconceived notions. That's what's killing us. Just give us a chance just like any other student from any school."
Fifty years after the Supreme Court took a stand against school segregation, tonight's basketball game in Topeka, Kansas shows a racial divide in the stands and on the court. But that's not the case in the cafeteria across the hall from the gym, where the Highland Park band is holding a Mexican dinner fundraiser.
Here, the black, white, and Latino students and parents from both Washburn Rural and Highland Park mingle. In earlier years, this crowd would not have been dining together. Tonight, if there is tension, it's hard to see.
Brown v. Board is often presented as a symbol of equality in the United States: the legal ruling that led to school integration and paved the way for significant social change in this country. But for many, the famous case is a reminder of a failed goal.
After the 1954 ruling, courts and school boards tried to implement Brown, and as Cheryl Brown Henderson notes they're still trying today.
"Bussing was one remedy, magnet schools was a remedy, voluntary/open enrollment was a remedy, afro-centric education," she explains. "All of these things are things that have been tried. I'm always of the opinion that you have to try everything and see what works and while you're trying all of these things we hope that there's gonna be something that takes, something that works, and something that can be replicated across the country. You know, I don't know what that is yet."