THE Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 began a new stage in the civil rights movement. It led eventually to the repeal of other statutes that sanctioned segregation in public life. A generation later, as we move into the last decade of the 20th century, it is appropriate to take stock of successes and failures in overcoming racial oppression in the United States.
On balance, the push for civil rights that began in Montgomery has been a resounding success. This is especially true in the area of education, largely because blacks - not whites - assumed the leadership.
In its 1954 Brown decision, the US Supreme Court observed, ``It is doubtful ... any child may reasonably expect to succeed in life if ... denied the opportunity of education.'' Minority-group children ``are, by reason of ... segregation, ... deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment,'' the court said.
But in the fashioning of an equitable solution, the Supreme Court did not involve the population that had been harmed by unlawful segregation. Instead, the all-white, all-male court assigned the primary responsibility for initiating and implementing an educational remedy to local school authorities. In those days, that usually meant all-white, or predominantly white, male-dominated school boards.
As a result of giving responsibility for desegregation to school authorities who had maintained racial segregation in the past, little happened during the decade after the Brown decision.
There was no positive action of redress until blacks assumed responsibility for their own liberation and took to the streets to initiate change.
Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues demonstrated in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. They issued a ``manifesto'' demanding an end to segregation in all areas of community life and warning that demonstrations and boycotts would continue until demands were met. From there Dr. King took his movement to the streets of St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964; to Selma, Ala., in 1965, to demand voting rights; to Chicago the same year to protest segregated housing. The James Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi on Highway 51 in 1966 demonstrating that blacks would no longer be intimidated by white violence. In 1967, Dr. King began planning for the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C.
Dr. King's ultimate gift, the sacrifice of his life in 1968, spurred the nation to further decisive action regarding educational equity for people of color.
Earlier, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and amendments to these statutes in 1966 and 1967. Then in 1968, the Handicapped Early Education Assistance Act and the Fair Housing Act were passed.
After Dr. King's death, many institutions, including foundations and public and private educational institutions, developed minority-student recruitment programs.
Between 1965 and 1975, blacks were not waiting on whites to fashion equitable educational and human rights remedies. Dr. King and other civil rights leaders kept the pressure for change turned on. Public laws for educational equity were enacted by Congress largely because of demonstrations in the streets.
Today, less than one year separates blacks and whites in the United States in terms of median year of school completed. A majority of adults over 25 in both racial groups are high school graduates. This is true for three out of four whites and two out of three blacks.
The number of blacks enrolled in colleges and universities went from 400,000 in 1965 to 1.2 million in 1975 - a 200 percent increase in one decade.
As demonstrations for justice for minorities increased, so did opportunities for an equitable education. From the late '70s till the present, however, the opposite has been happening. Demonstrations against injustice have decreased, and so has educational opportunity.
In the final years of the 1970s, federal grants for low-income and minority students began to diminish. Limited federal resources for programs for the disadvantaged were further diluted by increasing the range of people eligible for such programs. In 1978, student financial-assistance programs were modified to give middle-income as well as low-income college students access to governmental assistance.
By 1988 only about one-sixth of the $18.9 billion spent by the Department of Education went directly to college students. About one-fifth went to banks to subsidize student loans. As the '80s drew to an end, the federal government clearly favored loans over grants - which is to say, the government preferred to assist middle-income over low-income students. These retrenchments came during a period when blacks and other minorities were not pressuring for change as hard as they had in the past.
This analysis acknowledges that the civil rights movement led by Dr. King and others was very successful. Blacks, other minorities, women, and disabled individuals now receive a much larger piece of the educational pie. At the same time, white males are denied a disproportionately large piece of that same pie.
Now, it appears, they are striking back, with a potent weapon - the discourse of propaganda. Since white males control the media, they have decided to use it to disseminate the distorted message that the educational system, which has been pressured into accommodating the interests and concerns of individuals other than the dominant group, is drifting toward mediocrity. The facts do not support this contention.
I view our educational system in this nation today as superior to that of a generation ago. It is truly universal at elementary and secondary levels and more inclusive in higher education. It is also more flexible and accommodating to the needs of female students, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled students, bilingual students, and students with learning disabilities.
In my view, fairness and quality go hand in hand.
To summarize, the nation and its system of education is better than what it has been, but less than what it could be.