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‘Sober celebration’ of Brown decision


“The 50 years since Brown have seen the fortunes of black America advance and retreat. The fact that meaningful equality remains unfulfilled is not an indictment. It shows the challenge that remains.”

Julian Bond,

As the country marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, the head of the NAACP recognizes the impact that decision had while maintaining that its promise has not been fully realized. The nation’s highest court handed down the landmark decision on May 17, 1954.

Speaking to a group of several hundred lawyers in Madison during the State Bar of Wisconsin’s annual convention, NAACP Chair Julian Bond described Brown as a launch point for the Civil Rights Movement. However, he views its promise of an integrated education system as having been largely unfulfilled.

“The 50 years since Brown have seen the fortunes of black America advance and retreat,” Bond told the crowd. “The fact that meaningful equality remains unfulfilled is not an indictment. It shows the challenge that remains.”

Bond described the 50th anniversary as “a cause for sober celebration.” He acknowledged that the decision destroyed the legal basis for segregation and that it laid the groundwork for passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

“We celebrate the brilliant legal minds who were the architects of Brown,” he said. “We celebrate the families who were the plaintiffs. And we celebrate the legal principle that remains its enduring legacy.”

That legacy was found in the words of Brown’s author, Chief Judge Earl Warren, who wrote, “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The landmark decision on segregation in public schools came from the consolidation of several matters on appeal from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. The decision, authored by Warren, started out by stating:

“Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a state solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment — even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors of white and Negro schools may be equal.”

However, Bond viewed the Supreme Court’s follow-up decision in Brown II, issued on May 31, 1955, as the court backing off from the need for immediate action to correct problems with segregated school systems. In that second decision, the court told schools to take all the necessary actions to allow admission to schools on a nondiscriminatory basis, acting “with all deliberate speed.”

“For the first time in its history, the court had declared a right and delayed its implementation,” Bond observed.

Many school systems clouded the waters of desegregation with the question of what it meant to act “with all deliberate speed.” Bond described that language as an “ignominious judicial pronouncement,” which allowed school districts to drag out efforts to comply over the course of many years.

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State Bar of Wisconsin

“There was far too much deliberation and far too little speed,” Bond said.

Today, black and Hispanic students in low income settings continue to face challenges with unequal educational opportunities, Bond observed. Overcoming those challenges is an essential for society as a whole, he added.

“Economic and racial integration are preconditions for equal opportunity,” Bond said. “Once achieved, they permanently alter the patterns of minority-majority relations.”

At this point, he said, there are two different educational paths in America — one filled with predominately white, middle-class students and another filled with low-income minorities. Bond pinned the future success of the country on the willingness and ability to bridge the chasm between those two paths.

“Brown was the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest legal victory. It changed the legal status of black Americans,” Bond said. At the same time, the promise of equal access remains unfulfilled for many people.

Tony Anderson can be reached by email.

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