50 Years of Diversity: Brown V. Board Anniversary

Ebony, May 2004 | Go to article overview

50 Years of Diversity: Brown V. Board Anniversary


NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said it was "the most significant legal decision in the last 150 years." Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said it was" the opening gun of the civil rights revolution." PUSH President Jesse Jackson Sr. said it "broke the back of legal segregation." Elaine R. Jones, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, said it marked the end of "the era of apartheid in America."

The subject of this high-level analysis was the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which electrified the country when it was handed down on Monday, May 17, 1954, by a unanimous Supreme Court. Even today, 50 years later, Brown still strikes sparks in the public mind, and in the weeks and months following the 50th anniversary celebration on May 17, 2004, the hills and streets and schools of America will resound with new answers and questions.

What was Brown, as it is called almost everywhere?

What did it say?

What did it do?

The first thing to notice is that Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was about more than Topeka, Kansas. It was, in fact, a consolidation of five cases challenging segregation in public schools in the United States of America. The five cases had been heard by lower courts and had been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by attorneys representing Black schoolchildren in South Carolina, Washington, D. C., Delaware, Virginia, and Topeka. By agreement, the five cases had been docketed under the name of Oliver Brown, who was acting on behalf of his then-7-year-old daughter, Linda Brown.

The central issue of the case was education. But Brown was about more than education; it was about reversing the course of American history, a course that had been set in 1896 by the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous decision that played a major role in creating the Jim Crow world of 1954.

It's hard to imagine that world today. It was a world, in the South and to a great extent in the North, where Black employment opportunities were severely limited, and segregated parks, theaters, restaurants, hospitals, libraries, and schools was a way of life.

Brown changed all that, legally, destroying the infrastructure of Jim Crow and creating conditions that led to a racial revolution that changed the way Americans live and dream. That revolution led to progress on a number of fronts, including the political front, where the number of Black political officials grew from a mere handful to the more than 9,000 today. …

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