Brown V. Board (1954) 64 Years Late: Our Schools At A Crossroads

Thursday, May 17, 2018

May 17, 1954 is a date forever etched upon the annals of American history because on that pivotal day the Supreme Court would affirm in the decision of Brown v. Board (1954). “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This ruling overturned the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) verdict that firmly entrenched the doctrine of Separate but Equal as the law of the land and  that for the next half century would result in legally sanctioned discrimination throughout the workplace, in  public accommodations, disenfranchised polling places, and in segregated schools as black children were forced to utilize ragged textbooks and educational resources, attend buildings in disrepair, and were taught by overburdened and underpaid teachers.

This was the condition of the American educational landscape when noted attorney Charles Hamilton Houston would embark upon a strategy that focused on legally petitioning the courts to make states begin to be held fully accountable for failing to provide equal facilities, resources and support to black schools and students. Further, Houston reasoned that it would be too expensive for states to provide full equality in education; that judges would be more empathetic about the quality of legal training; and that precedents should be established which attacked the law until it was finally struck down.

Houston would also train many notable African- American attorneys as dean of the Howard University Law School in the 1930’s, including America's first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Significant cases that began to dismantle the separate but equal doctrine by demanding that states comply with the “Equal” standard include Murray v. Maryland and Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938). This set the stage for Marshall, who in 1940 would succeed his one-time teacher and mentor as lead counsel for the NAACP and would found the Legal Defense Fund as a dissociate legal entity within the organization. He would continue the direct action approach of Houston in cases such Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma; Sweatt v. Painter (1950); and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), which all contributed to striking down the separate but equal statute in graduate and professional schools, and served as important precursors that served as legal precedents as the fateful day that Brown v. Topeka Board of Kansas would be decided approached.

Brown in itself was five consolidated cases that the Supreme Court decided to adjudicate, and were listed as, Briggs v. Elliott; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County Virginia; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Bolling v. Sharpe; and the Delaware cases Belton-Bulah v. Gebhart. Though distinct from one another, inferior school buildings and resources, transportation, and equal protection under the 14th Amendment were near universal contentions the plaintiffs asserted. Despite the Court's ruling, the push back against the ruling was fierce. Students like the Clinton, Tennessee 12, the first to integrate a Southern high school, and the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas faced staunch opposition to integration. As Oakley, Stowell, and Logan (2009) note in their review of the impact of desegregation, nearly 40,000 black educators lost their jobs following Brown, and rather than integrate, many municipalities closed black schools. In an ultimate stance of “Massive Resistance”, 82 representatives and 19 senators of the United States Congress, mostly Southerners, signed a “Manifesto” as they declared,” We commend the motives of those states which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means.” It would take a sustained effort by often sole individuals who stood on courage, conviction and principle to see that the court’s decision in Brown would be sustained.

In 2008, the  Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights submitted a report entitled, School Desegregation in Tennessee: 12 Districts Released from Desegregation Orders, 17 Districts Remain under Court Jurisdiction (2008). This assessment of 136 public school districts sought to identify each district that had been subjected to court ordered desegregation decrees, and those that had successfully achieved what the federal court's framed as “unitary status,” and  had moved from a dually racial to a unitary system of public education. The equating factors and variables included: (1) student assignment, (2) faculty assignment, (3) staff assignment, (4) transportation, (5) extracurricular activities, and (6) facilities. The report stated that this process occurred in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County district in 1966, with the case Mapp v. Board of Education of City of Chattanooga (1966). For two decades after integration began in what was then Chattanooga City Schools, there was numerous desegregation litigation over among other issues advanced placement, the assignments and diversity of faculty and administrators, and adequacy in funding. A formal declaration of unitary status would occur for the “Chattanooga City” School district in 1986. Though never fully achieved, the unitary status for the county school district was considered obtained de-facto the merger with the City School District in 1997.

Coincidentally, on the sixty-second anniversary of Brown in 2016, the Government Accountability Office concluded that segregated schools with predominately students of color enrollments more than doubled over the last 20 years, from roughly 7,000-15,000 schools. Sixty-one percent of all high-poverty schools were populated by at least 75 percent students of color. Among other findings, students of color had poverty rates that were 2-3 times higher than the rates of white students and suffered from a lack of resources and higher-level course offerings. Similarly, the education think-tank EdBuild released the report Fractured: The Breakdown of America's School Districts which illustrated the resegregation of places such as the Gardendale district in Alabama.

The 2013 Tennessee Municipal School Act (SB1353/HB1288) was also highlighted in the report. It detailed the procedures municipalities must comply with in order to secede from existing school systems, namely that any potential system with a minimum of 1,500 students has to vote for the creation of a new district by simple majority and provide adequate tax and fiscal funds to support the schools. Also, a majority of residents must approve the change by referendum. As a consequence, six affluent municipalities in the Memphis area were among the first to exercise their right to invoke this option as they voted to demerge from Shelby County Schools in 2014. 

Hamilton County Schools have not been immune to many of the perplexities and complexities being witnessed across the American educational diaspora 64 years post-Brown. For the 2016-17 academic year, despite a minority student population around 40 percent, out of more than 3,300 teachers, only 361 were African American and 25 were Hispanic/Latino. For the 2015-16 academic year, there were 3,857 total suspensions in Hamilton County; 2,417 were Black/African-American, and out of 256 total expulsions well over half students of color. For many years there have been concerns raised over the fairness and inclusiveness of the magnet school lottery process as many have stated that it has historically been selective, subjective and plagued with nepotism. In 2017, a federal court ruled that there were violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in the case of Luka Hyde, and this teaches us that we must do more to ensure that the free and appropriate educating of all children are addressed by laying forth a special needs children bill of rights. The state of Tennessee, still wrestling over funding with the BEP formula, spends $23,000 annually on housing inmates versus $8,100 on students, and whose solution to address many of the ills in education is placing under performing schools into a dysfunctional achievement school district or ultimate takeover with entry into an untried and untested state partnership zone.  

These are just a few of the inequities and inadequacies in our education system that needs addressing 64 years after Brown. The great sacrifice that has been made by so many, in the name of a quality education for all, that in some instances was literally liberty or death, must not be forsaken or forgotten in our current political climate, and to do so will be to the detriment of schools and students who deserve an earnest and honest debate about the direction our schools must go in order for the achievement gaps to meaningfully subside. As Marshall himself once commented, “We deal here with the right of all of our children, whatever their race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Those children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them that right in the future.”

Eric Atkins




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