Brown's promise: yet to be fulfilled
When Seth McCormick entered Harlan High School in 1961, it was considered a fine school. Brand new, on Chicago's South Side, it was unusual in that it was integrated from its inception - roughly 25 percent African-American, the rest white. "There was no excuse not to succeed," remembers Mr. McCormick, an African-American who is today a retired TV producer. "I knew if I graduated from Harlan, I could go to any school in the country."Skip to next paragraph
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Just a decade later, though, only two or three white kids remained in a student body of 3,500. Today, Harlan is still all black and now federally designated as a failing school. The principal says parents in the neighborhood are reluctant to send their children there, assuming that because it is an all-black neighborhood school, it must not be good.
Harlan's fleeting existence as an integrated school - ending when whites fled - is hardly unusual. Fifty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared that "in the field of public education, 'separate-but-equal' has no place," the landscape of public education is still separate - and generally unequal - in many schools. The achievement gap between whites and minorities is one of education's most intractable problems, and studies show a substantial resegregation of schools in the past decade.
The days of legally barring black children from certain schools are over, of course, as is the ugliness of the early integration efforts. And Brown not only made an important statement about schools, but helped usher in the civil rights era of the '60s.
Still, even as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decision this month, many people also wonder what went wrong. What kept all the early promise, the vision of integrated schools and racial equality in education, from materializing?
"The courts never really gave Brown a chance to work in the way everyone hoped it would," says Elise Boddie, director of the education program for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "I think people on the whole support the idea of integration - the problem is trying to figure out a way to make it work in practice."
The courts, of course, reach only so far. And Brown's failure to live up to expectations may be a lesson on the limits of that reach. Segregated housing patterns, intractable racial prejudice, and massive early resistance all made school desegregation much tougher to accomplish than most people imagined.
For more than a decade, the decision existed only on paper. If the original ruling was elegant and clear-cut, Brown II - the decision a year later instructing how to implement integration - was not. The mandate for the South to desegregate its public schools "with all deliberate speed" was generally interpreted as "never."
The Supreme Court hoped to mollify Southerners by not establishing deadlines, says James Patterson, a history professor at Brown University and author of "Brown v. the Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy."
But by 1964, 10 years after the decision, less than 2 percent of Southern blacks went to school with whites. The justices "imagined [the resistance] would be bad, but I don't think they imagined it would be as bad as it was," says Professor Patterson.
Real integration didn't begin in the South until the late 1960s. In the North - which often looked down on the South's de jure segregation even as its less direct practices encouraged segregation in its own schools - it was even slower.