Black Monday: The NAACP's Finest Hour

Article excerpt

Monday, May 17, 1954. Howard University Professor John Hope Franklin received a call from his wife telling him that the Supreme Court had overturned the doctrine of separate-but-equal schools in the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. That ruling -- easily the most important for the civil rights of black Americans -- would have an imposing impact on all Americans for the next half century. Realizing the importance of the long-sought decision, Dr. Franklin and his friends went out to celebrate. But all was not well, even then.

"The moment that decision was handed down," Franklin remembers, "the country and particularly the South conspired to render it toothless and unimportant and weak. We were out celebrating the victory and the opponents of Brown were plotting then to render it ineffective. That's the first thing to come to mind, especially as I see what is happening. And all the consent decrees and motions to vacate the consent decrees and the efforts to nullify are going on now, subtly, just as it was going on in those days boldly and bluntly. An effort was made to be certain that the decision was not going to be effective and all the pupil and teacher placement, activities about neighborhood schools and all that was an effort merely to prevent the success of the Brown decision."

It has taken 45 years, but the efforts of the opponents of Brown are paying off. In June, Harvard University's Civil Rights Project released a report analyzing enrollment statistics in public schools since Brown. The latest report, "Resegregation in American Schools," contains a dire warning:

"We are clearly in a period when many policy makers, courts, and opinion makers assume that desegregation is no longer necessary, or that it will be accomplished somehow without need of any deliberate plan. Polls show that most white Americans believe that equal educational opportunity is being provided. National political leaders have largely ignored the growth of segregation in the 1990s. Thus, knowledge of trends in segregation and its closely related inequalities are even more crucial now. For example, increased testing requirements for high school graduation, for passing from one grade to the next, and college entrance can only be fair if we offer equal preparation to children, regardless of skin color and language. Increasing segregation, however pushes us in the opposite direction because it creates more unequal schools, particularly for low income minority children, who are the groups which most frequently receive low test scores. Educational policy decisions that do not take these realities into account will end up punishing students in inferior segregated schools or even sending more children to such schools while simultaneously raising sanctions for those who do not achieve at a sufficiently high level."

One of the authors of the report, Professor Gary Orfield, adds:

"We can expect some really big changes by the year 2000 because a lot of the larger school districts in the South are ending school desegregation." So how did we get here? The answer requires that we revisit Brown v Board of Education.

After World War II, the NAACP led other groups in a sustained attack against segregation in all its forms in the United States. And, of course, they were met with very heavy resistance, especially from Southern states. That resistance was reinforced by a case known as Plessy v Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court, in the postReconstruction days of 1896, in a case involving transportation, enshrined in law the doctrine of separate-but-equal. For the next half century, the courts and the states continued to wrangle with the doctrine, mainly on the issue of public education.

Plessy v Ferguson afforded some shelter to those who knew it was wrong but who did not have the fortitude to try and overturn it. Whenever a challenge was made to existing Jim Crow laws, courts had only to cite Plessy in order to justify their decisions to maintain the status quo. …