This Saturday, May 17, marks the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that formally outlawed racial segregation in public schools. The case was heralded then, as it is now, as a watershed moment in American history. The culmination of a decadeslong and painfully tedious NAACP strategy masterminded by unsung heroes such as Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, Brown reversed the white supremacist legal reasoning behind Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous 1896 SCOTUS ruling that “separate but equal” was legally just and constitutional.
African Americans from all class backgrounds rejoiced in Brown’s aftermath, hopeful that the unanimity of the court’s decision might muffle the rumblings of pro-segregation partisans in the South. But this was not to be. White Citizens’ Councils, made up of business and civic leaders, popped up all over the South, intent on defying the court order and maintaining segregation. Certain cities closed down public schools and set up all-white educational academies. Some Southern states resurrected the old Confederate battle flag as a mark of unapologetic adherence to white supremacy. Parents who could send children to private school, or move, did so.
Despite the Supreme Court’s clarification, a year later, that public schools should be integrated with “all deliberate speed,” in many instances it would take more than two decades for America to witness and experience actual school desegregation. Most of this took place, supported by federal court orders, in local communities far away from the spotlight of racial shame, violence and infamy that shone on Little Rock Central High School in 1957 or Boston in 1974. By the 1970s, some of America’s most racially segregated school districts had achieved a level of racial integration that was previously unimagined.
But since then, a curious element of our national civil rights history has gripped our progressive narrative of racial integration. As we have witnessed with recent Supreme Court voting-rights decisions, we are, at our core, a nation of backsliders. As Pro Publica reports, the resegregation of American public schools started in earnest in the 1980s as Justice Department officials started to let local districts handle their own affairs regarding racial balance in public schools.
Over the past two decades, the number of black and Latino children attending racially segregated schools has increased by more than 600,000. This stark contrast with racial integration’s empirical heyday of the 1970s has forced many to question Brown’s legacy. Fair enough.
If the point of school integration was to have racially balanced schools that would equitably distribute resources—and thus opportunities—to poor black children in the United States, then Brown’s legacy is indeed in jeopardy. One underdiscussed aspect of racial integration, both in public schools and society at large, was the impact on black educators, businesses and neighborhoods. Racial integration came, in many black communities, at the cost of jobs, dignity and respect for once-proud all-black institutions that had thrived during the earlier era of Jim Crow.
Resegregation has left many blacks between a rock and a hard place, with little or no access to predominantly white educational institutions, and facing the decline of historically black colleges, universities and other institutions that once offered solace during times when segregation went unchallenged.
In many respects, the most important aspect of Brown is the idea behind the decision itself. The admission that racial apartheid not only flourished in America but was also illegal and unconstitutional represented a political and moral victory that helped shape modern race relations. This acknowledgment of racial injustice by courts, however, cuts both ways.
For some, racism is real only if legal or political entities are compelled to recognize its existence. Although this acknowledgment came about quite often during the civil rights movement’s heyday, contemporary political and legal institutions have comfortably adopted a theoretically “colorblind” racism strategy that requires a Donald Sterling-like smoking gun as evidence of racial animus, or else all claims of bias and discrimination are willfully denied.
Ultimately, Brown’s most important legacy is one of grassroots political resistance. Long after the legal battles were fought, black parents, children and teachers bravely faced mobs, violence and death threats to ensure better opportunities for themselves and future generations. That struggle—which is ongoing in the 21st century and more vital now than ever—is the one that must be honored during this year of commemoration and long after.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.