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."

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.

"Jim Crow was an embarrassment [to Northerners], but that didn't mean they were strongly egalitarian when it came to race relations," says Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale University. "After Brown, it changed the playing field. The question was no longer if you were going to have separate facilities by law. The question was whether you'd go after more subtle forms of racism."

By the 1970s and '80s, however, significant desegregation was finally happening. Dozens of cities got court orders to achieve real, rather than token, racial balance in their schools, and busing and district-wide magnet schools were underway.

But today, the concern isn't the slow pace at which desegregation first occurred. It is the steady erosion of its gains.

A recent study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that since 1991 - when a Supreme Court decision letting Oklahoma City return to neighborhood schools from more racially balanced ones, prompted many lower courts to free districts from judicial oversight - many districts have to a large degree resegregated.

Some demographers take issue with the way the study defines segregation, but its results show that nationally, the percentage of black students attending majority white schools fell from a high of 44 percent in 1988 to 30 percent in 2001.

Desegregation "isn't a failure," says Gary Orfield, coauthor of the report and a leading expert on school integration. "Where it's happened, we've had really successful results. The main reason we're going back is that we've stopped trying."

His research shows the success of Brown as well as the failures. Between 1964 and 1970 alone, the percentage of blacks in majority white schools in the South went from 2 percent to 33 percent.

But the early 1970s also brought a pair of Supreme Court decisions that dealt severe blows to Brown's effectiveness. A 1973 ruling turned down an appeal aimed at equalizing school financing. And Milliken v. Bradley, the famous Detroit case from 1974, determined that city and suburban districts couldn't be required to merge to desegregate a metropolitan area.

The Milliken ruling was a particular blow to desegregation efforts that were just beginning in the North. It accelerated the already rapid white flight to the suburbs.

At Harlan, former assistant principal Richard Thompson recalls that "one year we came back and whoosh - all the white people had gone."

Today, Chicago's public schools are only 9 percent white. Cities like Detroit saw a similar white flight, and school systems in Illinois and Michigan remain among the most segregated in the country.

Still, despite Brown's shortcomings, policymakers say it remains a landmark decision - both for its symbolic value and for what it did accomplish, setting into motion the dismantling of Jim Crow.

"It was the catalyst for a great civil rights movement in this country," says William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

Mr. Taylor joined Thurgood Marshall's staff at the end of 1954, and argued many desegregation cases in later years. Often, he acknowledges, it's been an uphill battle.

"But I'm a little dismayed by the views I hear from some people. The conservatives say it's all been done, everything's fine. And then I run into these folks who say it's all been a failure, so why are we trying - that's another recipe for paralysis."

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.

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."

50 years of school integration

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Brown's promise: yet to be fulfilled
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today