Brown's promise: yet to be fulfilled
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Taylor and others say there's still reason for optimism, and that desegregation should continue to be one among a range of strategies to narrow the achievement gap and improve public schools.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet today, school desegregation looks like an option that's waning in popularity. Despite nearly universal reverence for Brown, the tools of desegregation - particularly busing - have taken on a negative association. Even efforts such as racially balanced magnet schools are starting to give way to more neighborhood schools.
As hallowed as Brown is, a few scholars question whether, in retrospect, it was even the right decision. In his new book "Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform," law professor Derrick Bell argues it would have been better for the court to actually enforce the "separate but equal" ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, and demand equal financing for black schools.
In a 1998 survey by Public Agenda, 51 percent of blacks said integration makes little difference in the quality of education children receive.
Mr. McCormick, the Harlan graduate, says he'd almost prefer that his own kids go to an all-black school, despite being pleased with his own integrated experience. Ultimately, he just wants a quality school, "no matter what color it is."
Still, Gertrude Hill, Harlan's principal, vividly remembers her own experience, growing up in public housing and graduating from the one of the oldest black high schools. She went on to Western Illinois University but lasted only two weeks.
"I didn't know anything about white people," she remembers. "After going out into the dominant culture, my self-esteem was down to zero. "
She worries that her students today - 50 years after the Brown decision - are equally ill-equipped to deal with the majority white world outside Harlan. "As principal of a school that doesn't mirror the world, I'm sad about that."
May 17, 1954 The United States Supreme Court unanimously rules that racial segregation in public schools - and elsewhere in public life - is unconstitutional, and that 7-year-old African-American student Linda Brown must be admitted to an all-white public school in Topeka, Kan.
1955 In a case that later becomes known as "Brown II," the Supreme Court says public schools must desegregate "with all deliberate speed" rather than requiring immediate action.
1956 A bombing destroys the newly integrated high school in Clinton, Tenn., forcing students into temporary quarters in another local school building. The national guard and state troopers are called in to keep peace at a Clinton football game.
1957 When nine African-American students try to enroll at Central High School In Little Rock, Ark., US Army troops have to be called in for their protection.
1971 In Swann v. Mecklenburg, the Supreme Court unanimously upholds the use of busing to integrate schools in Charlotte, N.C.
1974 In Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court rules that city schools be integrated without including the surrounding suburbs, thus accelerating "white flight" from US cities and their schools.
1976 Furor over school busing reaches a peak in Boston as white protesters assault black businessman Ted Landsmark with an American flag during an antibusing rally.
1999 A federal judge orders public schools in the Charlotte area to cease special efforts to integrate their schools.