On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education, (1) and almost immediately officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met in Atlanta, Georgia, to celebrate and to confer. On May 23 and 24, they met to plan for a future filled with hope. With the firm belief that their goals could be realized in the wake of Brown, they issued a statement that has come to be known as the "Atlanta Declaration." (2)
Over time, this document has been obscured, to an extent that few students of civil rights are familiar with it. But this declaration is, in fact, the most authentic and definitive commentary on the hopes of black Americans following Brown. The NAACP, with other individuals, developed a strategy and embarked on a mission to eradicate the pernicious separate-but-equal doctrine that had been enunciated as the law of the land in Plessy v. Ferguson, (3) a decision in which the Court ignominiously betrayed the hopes of black Americans.
No commemoration of Brown can be credible, nor can the decision be evaluated effectively at this point in history, without revisiting and understanding the Atlanta Declaration. The full text of the declaration reads:
We, as representatives of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People from seventeen Southern and
Border States and the District of Columbia, have assembled
here in Atlanta, Georgia, May 22-23, for the purpose of
collectively developing a program to meet the vital and urgent
issues arising out of the historic United States Supreme Court
decision of May 17 banning segregation in public schools.
All Americans are now relieved to have the law of the land declare
in the clearest language: "... in the field of public education
the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate
educational facilities are inherently unequal." Segregation in
public education is now not only unlawful: it is un-American.
True Americans are grateful for this decision. Now that the law
is made clear, we look to the future. Having canvassed the situation
in each of our States, we approach the future with the utmost
confidence. This confidence is based upon the many
factors including the pledges of support and compliance by governors,
attorney generals, mayors, and education officials; and
by enlightened guidance of newspapers, radio, television and
other organs of public communication and comment.
We stand ready to work with other law-abiding citizens who are
anxious to translate this decision into a program of action to
eradicate racial segregation in public education as speedily as
We are instructing all of our branches in every affected area to
petition their local school boards to abolish segregation without
delay and to assist these agencies in working out ways and
means of implementing the Court's ruling. The total resources
of the NAACP will be made available to facilitate this great project
of ending the artificial separation of America's children on
the irrelevant basis of race and color.
While we recognize that school officials will have certain
administrative problems in transferring from a segregated to a
non-segregated system, we will resist the use of any tactics
contrived for the sole purpose of delaying desegregation.
In pursuit of our objectives, we will accelerate our community
action program to win public acceptance of the Court's desegregation
order from all segments of the population. To this end,
we are confident of the support of teachers, parents, labor,
church, civic, fraternal, social, business and professional
We insist that there should be integration at all levels including
the assignment of teacher-personnel on a non-discriminatory basis. …