It is difficult in today’s world to envision the landscape of American education in the era before the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court. In all of the South and some portions of the North, racial segregation was a bedrock of how the nation’s schools functioned at every level.
On this anniversary of the landmark decision that ruled that separate school systems for African-American and white students defied the United States Constitution, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the impact of that ruling.
While the decision paved the way for integration of America’s schools and was considered a major victory for civil rights groups, the dismantling of separate school systems did not occur overnight. Indeed, mixing black and white students in a school was often met with strong hostility and, in more than a few cases, mortal danger.
It would take years after that 1954 decision before many schools, particularly in the South, would obey the tenets of the decision. In some cases, such as at the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama, it would take intervention by the federal government.
In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the state’s National Guard to block the entry of African-American students into Little Rock’s Central High School, causing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to deploy federal troops.
In 1963, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace stood in the door of a University of Alabama building in a theatrical effort to prevent the enrollment of two African-American students, while proclaiming "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." However, he was moved aside when President John F. Kennedy sent the National Guard to intervene.
One thing that many forget about in the world of the 21st century is that the decision was written by Earl Warren, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Warren was a breed of public official that is now in painfully short supply: He was a moderate Republican who had served as governor of California on three occasions. It was Warren’s tenure as Chief Justice that is widely regarded as one of the high points of the power of the judicial branch of the American government.
While schools now are legally desegregated, there remains far too much disparity between schools in largely African-American communities and their white counterparts. There are vast gaps in funding, in test scores and in employment opportunities for those who live in largely African-American areas, all of which severely affect school performance.
Nonetheless, the decision of 1954 remains one of the hallmarks of America’s post-Civil War history. In an era where segregation was the law of the land, it paved the way for extraordinary achievements that would have been unthinkable in the world of the mid-1950s. The decision continues to stand as a benchmark of how far the nation has traveled, and of how much remains to be accomplished.
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