Exploring the Brown v. Board Decision 70 Years Later
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Exploring the Brown v. Board Decision 70 Years Later

Did it accomplish what it was supposed to?

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that shook America to its core. State-sanction segregation of public schools was found to be a violation of the 14th Amendment. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling overturned almost 60 years of precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson which declared “separate but equal” was good enough for schools in the United States. But the devil is in the details. Exactly nothing happened in 1954 when the ruling was made. The Warren Court, as pictured above, gave itself until the next term of the following year to decide how integration would be implemented. In 1955, Brown II coined the phrase “with all deliberate speed,” giving states as long as they wanted to start integrating schools.

When the case went to the Supreme Court, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued that “school segregation was a violation of individual rights under the 14th Amendment.” He added, “The only justification for continuing to have separate schools was to keep people who were slaves as near that stage as possible.”

Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” He talked a good game, but the words “with all deliberate speed” made his statement nearly meaningless.

Most Americans today, including myself, weren’t born when the Brown v Board ruling came down, but the recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a fair comparison. Dobbs overturned a 50-year precedent, removing a Constitutional right from women. Best believe that many Americans, called segregated schools, felt they had lost a Constitutional right affecting their living children whom they could see, not the unborn they could not. Segregationists didn’t go down without a fight.

Related: Florida School Holds Segregated Assembly to Give Black Students a Tongue Lashing

In Mansfield, TX, when 12 Black students were admitted, mobs of whites with guns patrolled the street to prevent Black kids from entering the grounds. A Black child was hung in effigy and set afire. A sign was attached to each pant leg; one read:

“This negro tried to enter a white school. This would be a terrible way to die.”

The other read:

“Stay away, n******.”

The Mansfield School Board voted to “exhaust all legal remedies to delay segregation.” In December 1956, The United States Supreme Court ordered the Mansfield school district to integrate immediately. However, Mansfield public schools did not officially desegregate until 1965.

You might occasionally see images revolving around Little Rock Central or the Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans. Protests with violence or threats of violence took place across the nation.

Protests weren’t limited to outside of schools. Segregationists took over school boards, and politicians stood their ground. 101 members of Congress signed the Southern Manifesto, opposing integration in public places. Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia urged “massive resistance” in defiance of the Supreme Court. Many jurisdictions passed laws forbidding desegregation. Some schools shut down, including one whole school district, in opposition to the mixing of the races. In Governor George Wallace’s inauguration speech at the Alabama capital, he declared:

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Was Brown V. Board of Education correctly decided? This question has become a standard one asked of nominees to the Supreme Court and Federal Judgeships to assure onlookers that if confirmed, the Judge/Justice will be fair to members without regard to race. The standard answer used to be, “Of course, it’s a landmark decision declaring segregation was Unconstitutional.” Now, the answer has become something like, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on a matter which might come before the Court.

While Brown v. Board could not help but declare segregation Unconstitutional, the decision, which called for its implementation “with all deliberate speed,” made it not a landmark one but one of the weakest of all time, in some cases almost useless. The Virginia high school that recently reverted to the original name of Stonewall Jackson High opened in 1959 as a segregated, whites-only high school. This was 5 years after the Brown v. Board decision.

I went to public school in Minneapolis, which officially desegregated in my junior year, 1972, though some schools, like my elementary and high schools, voluntarily desegregated just before I arrived. Because of the “with all deliberate speed” clause. Many school districts did nothing until legally required to by consent decrees resolving lawsuits by the justice department. Some of those decrees have been in place for decades, others have expired after school districts were deemed to be in compliance. In 2020, the Century Foundation found that 722 school districts across the country were still operating under consent decrees.

So, did Brown v. Board accomplish its stated goal of ending segregation? The answer would seem to be no, with some school districts nearly as segregated today as they were in 1954. The Century Foundation used the example of Anniston, AL, where a consent decree still in place is virtually useless.

Don’t think segregated schools are limited to backwater Southern communities. Many segregated schools are found in New York and California, as well as some private schools across the country. Don’t look to the Supreme Court for relief; they now allow the use of public funds to support private schools, and at least one recent justice believes that Plessy v. Ferguson was good law. Current Justice Neil Gorsuch danced around the issue at his confirmation hearings.

There’s no doubt that Brown v. Board eventually changed America for the better. Its vagueness and failure to institute timelines and penalties meant that desegregation is still being dragged out if not reversed. How far do you have to go to find a segregated school where you live? I used to live in Orlando, where the answer at one time would have been less than a mile for a white school and five miles for a Black one. The white school was founded in the 1970s as a “segregation academy” where white parents could send their children with no fear of integration. That school has since admitted a small percentage of Asians, Hispanics, and Black students without losing its true character.

In 1959, Clyde Kennard was arrested after trying to enter Mississippi Southern College, now the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg. The state of Mississippi framed him on criminal charges for a petty crime and sentenced him to seven years of hard labor at Parchman Penitentiary. Kennard was released in 1963 on humanitarian grounds when it was discovered he was dying from cancer. Lennard was a veteran of the Korean War. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School and journalist Jerry Mitchell dedicated years to finally getting Kennard’s name cleared of the crime.

In many ways, the Brown v. Board decision worked exactly as it was supposed to. Despite the unanimous decision, there was great dissent among the jurists, and had it not been for a last-minute replacement of the Chief Justice, the decision might have been entirely different. Newly appointed Earl Warren shaped the decision. Two justices were worried about widespread violence, and others wanted it left to Congress. It took bravery for SCOTUS to do as much as they did. With a little more courage, they could have gotten the job done right.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.