The Future of Brown: Fifty Years Ago, Brown V. Board of Education Was One of the Linchpins of a Social Revolution That Ended Jim Crow. in Many Ways It Was More Successful at Ending Segregation in Public Life Than It Was in Changing Our Schools. What Is Brown's Relevance for the Next Decade?

Article excerpt

By the time this article is read the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education will be well underway. Last year the academic press began the process of commemorating Brown with a number articles in education journals, law reviews and academic conferences. Most commentators will, of course, celebrate one of this country's most important cases and lament that the vision of Brown to end segregated schooling in America remains unfulfilled. These two versions of Brown, as moral compass and unfulfilled promise, are both accurate. Seldom has the Supreme Court issued an opinion with such profound implications for the direction of our country, and seldom has a court order been so persistently evaded by a combination of determined opposition and eroding judicial support. While over these 50 years Brown has been critiqued from as many different directions as the geometric facets of a snowflake, today it remains a cornerstone of our legal culture, but one whose relevance for the next decade is in serious doubt.


From a purely legal standpoint Brown was remarkably sparse on the law. The entire decision is only a few pages long and even the principle litigants were shocked at the brevity of the opinion. But in its brief discussion, the Court issued a decree that resonates in the memory of most of us who came of age in the 1950s and '60s. It declared that in the field of public education "separate but equal has no place." However, in that simple majestic command lies one of Brown's greatest ironies. The year 1954 will forever mark the beginning of the end of the legal structure of American apartheid known as "Jim Crow." Although the decision was directed only at public education, it soon became the precedent for the legal assault on segregation in other areas of public life. In many ways Brown was far more successful in ending segregation in those arenas than it was in changing our public schools. With the civil rights movement at its peak, federal judges began applying Brown's reasoning far beyond public education, and Congress finally responded in 1965 with the passage of the most comprehensive civil rights act in nearly 100 years. A social revolution had been unleashed, and Brown was one of its linchpins.

A Story of Unredeemed Promise

It's not surprising that, despite Brown's order to the district courts to end segregation in our schools, resistance to the new order was tenacious, ingenious and often violent. In fact, Brown's 20th, 30th and 40th anniversaries have each served as benchmarks and bitter reminders of just how stubborn the resistance to school integration has been. While opposition was expected in the South and resulted in the Supreme Court modifying its decision in Brown II with the language for desegregation to proceed only with "all deliberate speed," by the time the Court shifted its attention from South to North the reaction was often just as resolute. Whether the opponents rallied under the banner of "preserving neighborhood schools" or maintaining "quality education" or "parental choice," the results were the same. Whites were reluctant to go to school with blacks and would back up that opposition with lawsuits, legislative proposals, foot dragging of every sort by the courts, and as a last resort, fleeing integrated school districts for the predominantly white suburbs.

Gary Orfield and John T. Yun at the Harvard Center for Civil Rights have tracked this retrograde in school desegregation efforts and revealed a troubling state of affairs. Their studies show that today, more than 70 percent of the nation's black students now attend predominantly minority schools. Another dramatic and largely ignored effect of resegregation has been on Latino students. In 1968 only a little more than 20 percent of Latino students were enrolled in intensely segregated schools. In 1998 approximately 75. …