Magazine article USA TODAY

Brown vs. Board of Education: Celebrating a Half-Century of Hope

Magazine article USA TODAY

Brown vs. Board of Education: Celebrating a Half-Century of Hope

Article excerpt

WHEN THE HISTORIC Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was issued in 1954. I was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The response of the university's hierarchy and professors, along with the shared thoughts and debates of fellow classmates, spurred the decision into an open seminar throughout the campus.

Moreover, all during my freshman year, there were lectures, papers, debates, and numerous discussions, formally and informally, on the topic. These all centered on what the anticipated decision could, would, or should be. Therefore, May 17, 1954, was another 20th-century D-Day in black ,and white America.

I have some lifelong impressions and a 50-year memory bank that neither time nor space will permit complete expression. To begin, allow me to lift up a small handful of observations on the case that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and finally put it on the books that separate but equal was anything but, and that segregation no longer was the law of the land.

In 2054, our successors and offspring will observe the 100th anniversary of Brown. What we do and say now, or what we refuse to do and say, will impact the life of our nation and the future of our children. Brown u Board of Education did not occur in a vacuum. The previous 19 years had witnessed significant legal victories in education and voting (i.e., the outlawing of "White primaries"), A. Phillip Randolph's courageous fight for the enactment of the Federal Employment Practice Commission, and the heightened and determined struggle against racism growing out of World War II. There was the Pres. Harry S Truman initiative and the desegregation of the Armed Forces as well as the initiative from Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey at the 1948 Democratic National Convention concerning civil and human rights--an effort that caused southern Democrats to bolt the party and become Dixiecrats under the late Strom Thurman of South Carolina. We were witnessing the rising tide against colonialism, the United Nations Human Rights Declaration, and the intense challenge of communism, led by the Soviet Union.

There was what British Prime Minister Harold McMillan later would describe as the "winds of change" sweeping the globe. In addition, the continuing proclamations of hope and protest emanating from the Black Religious Experience--a reality that is forever with us in songs, sermons, writings, and direct action.

The 1954 benchmark

In 1954 and before, there were voices such as Mordecai Johnson at Howard University; Howard Thurman, theologian and writer; Benjamin E. Mays; Mary McCleod Bethune; Dorothy Height; Nannie Helen Burroughs; and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., from the pulpit and on the floor of Congress. There also were outcries for equality and justice from the likes of Gardner C. Taylor, Bishop Spottswood Robinson, William Holmes Borders, Vernon Johns, Martin Luther King, Sr., and a host of African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion bishops and pastors.

One of the phenomenal differences in 1954, as compared to 1883 (when the Supreme Court declared the 1875 Civil Rights Bill unconstitutional) and 1896 (when the Court ruled that "separate but equal" was constitutional) is that Brown attorney Thurgood Marshall (who later became a Supreme Court Justice) was able to assemble one of the greatest legal teams in civil rights history. Marshall was blessed with a master mentor and legal scholar activist in Charles Hamilton Houston, the Howard University Law School dean during Marshall's student days. Houston died a few years before the momentous decision, but his protege was extraordinary.

In addition to a phenomenal legal unit, Marshall had at his disposal the expert research capabilities of individuals such as psychologist Kenneth Clark and historian John Hope Franklin. This group of lawyers, scholars, and experts had a multitude of plaintiffs--ordinary men, women, and children, clergy and laypersons, who, with uncommon courage, were willing to face the trials of life and death. …

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