Politicians, civil rights activists and ordinary people came together Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racially segregated schools.
The Brown case was one of the most important decided by the Supreme Court in U.S. history and forever changed the face of America.
The 1954 decision struck down the concept of separate but equal schools for blacks and whites and began a process of integration of public schools that went on for years and, in some cases, decades. The ruling was also a pivotal moment in the building struggle for civil rights, especially in the American South.
The original case stemmed from a lawsuit by Oliver Brown against the school board in Topeka, Kansas. Mr. Brown wanted his nine-year old daughter Linda to attend what was a whites-only school at the time.
President Bush spoke in Topeka Monday to mark the anniversary. "On this day, in this place, we remember with gratitude the good souls who saw a great wrong and stood their ground and won their case and we celebrate a milestone in the history of our glorious nation," he said.
Earlier, the president's presumed Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, also paid tribute to the anniversary at a different ceremony in Topeka. But Senator Kerry went on to say that much remains to be done to fully achieve the vision of equal education for all as promised by the Brown decision.
"We should not delude ourselves into thinking for an instant that because Brown represents the law we have achieved our goal, that the work of Brown is done when there are those who still seek, in different ways, to see it undone, to roll back affirmative action, to restrict equal rights, to undermine the promise of our Constitution," said Senator Kerry. "Yes, we have to defend the progress that has been made. But make no mistake, we also have to move the cause forward. That is our responsibility and our mission."
Thousands gathered in Topeka to mark the anniversary Monday. The ceremony included the dedication of a new civil rights museum in a building that had been a blacks-only school at the time of the Brown decision.
Among those who spoke at the dedication was Dennis Hayes of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization that led the fight to end segregation throughout society.
"Today is a solemn yet joyous occasion to remember America's rendezvous of faith with her then-colored and Negro citizens when a faithful chord was struck with her theretofore disenfranchised and second-class citizens," said Mr. Hayes.
While praising the impact of the Brown decision on one hand, many African-Americans are also using the anniversary to call for more government funding for schools that primarily serve minorities or low-income families.
Vinetta Jones is the Dean of Education at Howard University here in Washington.
"At 50 years, some gains have been made," she said. "But when it comes to opportunity and access to quality education, [we say] that in 2004, equal is the law, unequal is the fact."
The Brown case actually began in 1951 when several black families in Topeka tried to enroll their children in white schools. The Brown case was combined with similar desegregation lawsuits from Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware that were decided collectively by the Supreme Court on May 17th, 1954.