BROWN VS. THE BOARD of Education has probably changed the
everyday lives of Americans more than any other U.S. Supreme Court
decision of the century.
The doctrine of "separate but equal" is dead in the law. But
the practice is alive for many black children in America's cities.
Four decades after the Brown decision, one in three black
school children attends a nearly all-black school.
These are the two faces of Brown - the monumental legal
landmark and the unfulfilled legal promise.
Brown was more than a Supreme Court case. It was the trumpet
fanfare that heralded a new era of American life.
Brown not only put an end to laws that required segregated
education. It was a call to arms for the Civil Rights movement,
setting the stage for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting
Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
As a result, blacks could attend schools with whites, drink
from the same water fountain, use the same bathroom, stay in the
same inn, eat at the same restaurant, live in the same neighborhood.
Brown remade American society by helping to build a black
High school graduation rates for blacks have soared until they
almost equal those of whites. More blacks attend four-year colleges
than ever before. Those who attend integrated high schools tend to
go to integrated colleges, to get jobs alongside whites and to move
into integrated neighborhoods, researchers say.
Despite these gains, for the first time since Brown, American
schools are becoming more racially segregated. Not only do
one-third of black students attend nearly all-black schools,
one-third more attend schools where more than half the students are
black. For Hispanics, the fraction is even higher.
Among the states, Illinois has the highest percentage of black
students in nearly all-black schools - 59.3 percent, a recent study
And there are other problems:
On standardized tests, blacks still lag behind whites, although
the gap has narrowed.
In the Supreme Court, most justices sound as if they want to
begin wrapping up the four decades of court supervision of schools.
In the political arena, support for sweeping desegregation
plans is weak. Important black political leaders are questioning
the emphasis on desegregation. Last year, Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr.
in St. Louis said he wants to end the voluntary city-county
transfer plan, and Mayor Michael White of Cleveland called for an
end to mandatory desegregation.
Robert Carter is among those expressing doubts. He was one of
the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers who argued against the
doctrine of separate-but-equal before the court issued the Brown
decision on May 17, 1954.
"Brown has been hailed as one of the giants of American
jurisprudence," he said at New York University last month, "but
whatever claim it may have to that classification, it cannot be
based on its success in providing equal educational opportunity for
"Thus far, for most black children the constitutional guarantee
of equal education opportunity which Brown held was secured to them
has been an arid abstraction, having no effect whatsoever on the
bleak offerings black children are given in the deteriorating
schools they attend."
The man who sat next to Carter at the counsel table in that
Topeka courtroom, Jack Greenberg, says Brown's impact can't be
underestimated. "It created for first time a large black middle
class which is growing faster than the white middle class."
Kansas School Makes History
When Linda Brown was entering third grade in 1950, her best
friend was Mona, an Hispanic girl. They played house and made mud
pies together in their neighborhood by the railroad tracks near the
Kaw River. But when Mona went to Sumner elementary school four
blocks away, Linda couldn't go.
"She asked me why," Linda remembers. …