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Desegregation case makes history again

Sunday, February 1, 2004

She's been helping organize Black History Month events for 25 years, but Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton has noticed something a little different about this February: an intensely personal response to the celebration's theme.

The topic, the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, has generated an outpouring of enthusiasm and a flood of events planned this month by schools, libraries and other organizations.

"It's a more emotional issue. The mood is more personal," said Cyrus-Albritton, interim executive director of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Washington, D.C., group that sets Black History Month themes.

"That decision affected people on a much different level than some of the other themes for Black History Month. ... It just challenged the moral fabric of this country."

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separating black and white children in public schools was unconstitutional. Segregating students solely on the basis of their race denied black children the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law, it said.

"In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," the court ruled. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The ruling overturned the court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which concluded there was nothing unconstitutional about a Louisiana law that required separate but equal railroad cars for black and white passengers.

"Brown broke the back of American apartheid," said Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. "It was a case that finally breathed life into the 14th Amendment for African-Americans."

"Brown gave the civil rights movement a great boost," agreed historian John Hope Franklin, who helped develop the legal brief that led to the Brown decision. "It became an armor in their fight to equalize opportunity -- not only education, but in other areas, too."

A year and a half later, a tired, black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger, launching the yearlong Montgomery bus boycotts. The campaign ended after a Supreme Court decision declared the city's segregated seating unconstitutional.

It was a sign of how Brown energized both activists and the courts. Over the next 12 years, the Supreme Court "handed down decision after decision that followed the path Brown had opened," Richard Kluger writes in "Simple Justice," a book about the decision.

Segregation was outlawed in public parks, recreation areas, interstate and intrastate commerce facilities, libraries, courtrooms, hotels, restaurants and other public places.

The decision's far-reaching legacy is being commemorated this year in events across the country. Some will culminate with the decision's 50th anniversary in May, while others will continue through the end of the year.

In St. Louis, Mo., Historyonics Theatre Company is presenting "Brown vs. the Board of Education," a play that uses words spoken by people involved in the case.

Patton Chiles, the company's artistic director, dug into archives of interviews, newspaper articles and books about the case while writing the play, which opens Feb. 13.

The Brown decision "had a big impact on me," Chiles said. "I've sort of made that a cause, breaking down the social barriers between the two races. If you put theater up there and people can see something from somebody else's point of view ... they can put a human face on it, and it opens up dialogue between the two races."

At the University of Michigan, a semester-long commemoration of the anniversary includes a half-dozen new classes on the case began last month. Thirty other courses have been modified to discuss the decision in greater detail.

University of Virginia Law Professor Kim Forde-Mazrui remembers researching a college paper on Earl Warren, the chief justice who wrote the Brown opinion.

"Reading the accounts of Brown when I was doing this paper became my new moment of inspiration and hope," said Forde-Mazrui, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, who will be speaking about the case at an event next month.

"For me, what I think Brown means, and probably for others, is seeing black people, and especially black children, as people ... It's about seeing past race."

Some caution the events should be infused with a careful examination of race relations today. Schools across the nation are becoming more segregated for black and Hispanic students, a recent report by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project found.

"We're at a really serious risk of losing what we're celebrating," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the project. "We're trying to inject into this a sense of both the amazing accomplishments of Brown and the Civil Rights Act and the fact that we've been pretty much going backwards now ever since the early 1990s."

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On the Net:

Association for the Study of African American Life and History: http://www.asalh.com/


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