Introduction: Brown V. Board of Education-Fifty Years of Educational Change in the United States

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Beginning in January 2004 and continuing throughout the year, numerous programs, conferences, and symposia were held, and numerous books and articles were published commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. Brought by the NAACP attorneys on behalf of plaintiffs from Kansas, Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that legal segregation in public education was a violation of the rights of African American children under the 14th Amendment guarantee of "equal protection of the laws" for all U.S. citizens. In the various commemorative events, the origins of the case were explored, the legal strategies were examined, the parents, children, and school officials involved in the litigation were profiled, and the NAACP attorneys who argued the case were scrutinized and in some cases lionized. The decision was a monumental victory for human rights and set in motion a series of legal actions and social movements that led to the creation of a truly democratic society in the United States.

Despite the voluminous amount of research conducted on the causes and consequences of the Brown decision, there is little unanimity among scholars about the nature of the social, political, cultural, and educational changes in American society in the wake of the ruling. While most historians recognize the significance of the ruling to 20th century U.S. history, some commentators have focused on the "unfulfilled promises" associated with the Brown decision and draw our attention to those ideas and practices that were unaffected by the ruling, and traced their disenchantment to 1955 and what is known historically as Brown II in which the Justices seemed to backtrack in the face of the widespread opposition to their original pronouncement. When southern white leaders took the lead in denouncing the ruling and promising to oppose any attempts at the desegregation of southern public education, the Supreme Court declared that the implementation should be carried out "with all deliberate speed," which southern politicians and leaders interpreted as slowly and gradually, and this set the stage for organized opposition to any immediate attempts to dismantle Jim Crow structures in southern public education. Over the past half century, the promise of Brown has remained unfulfilled as a result of the massive resistance campaigns, white backlash, organized opposition to court-ordered busing, the attacks on federal Affirmative Action policies, conservative Republican electoral victories beginning in the 1980s, and the current claims of massive resegregation, particularly in public schools in large urban areas.

One major difference between earlier commemorations of the Brown decision--the 25th, 30th, and 40th anniversary celebrations--and those in 2004 was that many African American spokespersons aligned themselves with the "unfulfilled promises" camp and emphasized the failure of the Brown decision to begin the process of truly integrating U.S. public schools and the society at large. (1) For example, Charles Ogletree's All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education; Sheryll Cashin's The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream; and Derrick Bell's Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform have much in common. These books begin by quoting statistics on the persistence of de facto segregation in housing, elementary, secondary, and higher education; and focus on the economic disparities between whites and African Americans at the beginning of the 21st century. A favorite statistic quoted by all three is that in 2000 the black median household income ($29,500) is only 64 percent of that of whites ($46, 300). Despite increases in the high school and college completion rates, the expansion in the size of the black middle class, and the advances made by African Americans in the corporate world, the disparity in incomes and wealth between African Americans and whites persist (black median wealth is 16 percent that of whites). …


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