Fiftieth Anniversary of Ruling Against Racial Separation in Schools

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Today we look back at an event fifty years ago in civil rights history. On May seventeenth, ninety-fifty-four, the Supreme Court ruled that racial separation in public schools violated the Constitution.

The year is eighteen-ninety-six. Northern states won the Civil War thirty years ago. Southerners lost the right to have slaves. Black people are supposed to have the same legal rights now as white people under the Constitution.

Yet the Supreme Court has just declared that blacks and whites can be educated in separate schools. The schools can be separate as long as the quality of the education is equal.

Now it is nineteen-fifty-four. Almost sixty years have passed. These days, there is a lot of talk about civil rights. The United States armed services are no longer separated by race. President Harry Truman made that an order in nineteen-forty-eight, three years after World War Two ended.

After the war, society is changing. Life is getting better, but not for all Americans. Equal treatment is an issue not just in the military.

Now, the Supreme Court declares that schools paid for with public money must be open to students of all races.

The case was important in the movement to gain equal rights for African Americans. At that time, it was legal to separate blacks and whites in public places as long as the services were "separate but equal." But schools for white children were almost always better.

The situation was worst in the South. Most blacks in the South were not permitted to vote. They were denied jobs. They often had to live in fear of racists.

The National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People is a leading civil rights group. In the nineteen-forties, the N-double-A-C-P decided to take action to get the Supreme Court to reconsider its eighteen-ninety-six ruling.

In nineteen-fifty-one, the N-double-A-C-P sent its lawyers to help an African American man in the middle of the country. Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas, wanted to send his daughter, Linda, to a new school closer to their home. But the school said no. That school was for white children only.

So Oliver Brown and twelve other black parents in Topeka brought legal action. State courts ruled against them.

After that, the parents joined with black families in other states. Twenty other states also separated schoolchildren by race. With the help of the N-double-A-C-P, the parents appealed their case to the Supreme Court.

The court decided to combine five cases involving schools in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C. These cases became known together as Brown versus the Board of Education.

Thurgood Marshall was the top lawyer for the civil rights organization. Later, he became the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.

The case opened in nineteen-fifty-two. Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers presented their side. They argued that separate schools denied black children the constitutional right of equal protection under the law.

The Supreme Court justices considered the case for almost a year and a half. Then on May seventeenth, nineteen-fifty-four, they announced their decision. All nine justices called for an end to racial separation in public schools. They decided that the rule of “separate but equal” had no place in public education.

They found that separation made minority students feel of lesser value. This affected their ability to learn. The next year, the court said public schools must accept children of all races as quickly as possible.

Some of the twenty-one states moved quickly to permit black students and white students to attend the same schools. Some in the South, however, resisted. The governor of Virginia closed public schools to thousands of students rather than desegregate.

In nineteen-fifty-seven, the governor of Arkansas called out state troops. Orval Faubus ordered them to bar a group of black students from a school in the city of Little Rock. President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to protect black students.

In nineteen-sixty-four Congress passed a civil rights act. This law said the government could withdraw federal aid to schools that were racially separated. By nineteen-seventy, schools in the South were described as more integrated than anywhere else in the country. Experts say this remains true. Yet it is still possible to find traditional events like separate dances for blacks and whites.

After the Brown decision, many people and groups organized protests to demand equal rights for black people in all areas of life. The ruling also led to hundreds of other civil rights cases along with legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of nineteen-sixty-four banned unequal treatment of black people in employment and public places. The Voting Rights Act of nineteen-sixty-five banned actions by Southern states that prevented black people from voting.

Recently, experts have been discussing the progress made in the fifty years since the decision. Many note the improvements in the number of black students who graduate from high school. And they say growing numbers of minorities are studying science and engineering in higher education.

However, black and Hispanic students are still far more likely than whites or Asian Americans to leave high school early. Critics also note that there are areas throughout the country where racial and ethnic groups live separately. This is the result not of laws, but usually of economics and immigration patterns.

Research shows that most white, black and Hispanic students still go to a school where they are in the majority. Public schools get most of their money from taxes, often based on local property values. Schools that are mostly black or Hispanic often have too many students and not enough money. Many critics also say blacks and Hispanics are too often placed in lower-level programs instead of honors classes.

Legal rulings during the nineteen-nineties have led to the end of court-supervised desegregation programs in many cities. These included programs like busing students across town in an effort to establish racially mixed schools. But creating a balance became more and more difficult. Many white families moved out of cities. Or they put their children into private schools.

Some critics say that segregation is worse now in parts of the country than it was at the time of the Brown decision. But some steps have been taken to improve the quality of schools.

In January of two-thousand-two, President Bush signed a federal education law that his administration proposed in Congress. The law is called No Child Left Behind. By two-thousand-fourteen, it calls for all children to be able to read and do math at the grade level for their age.

Yet many schools are struggling to meet the requirements. Some states have been taking steps to withdraw, even if they lose federal aid.

One way schools have tried to increase racial balance is through affirmative action. Such programs give special consideration to minorities who want to attend. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to let the University of Michigan law school continue its program.

Affirmative action is under attack, though. Some call it unfair. Others say students who attend racially mixed schools are better prepared to live in society. But some civil rights leaders say they are more concerned with the quality of the education than the racial balance of a school.

The daughters of Oliver Brown are taking part in the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the ruling in their famous case. Linda Brown Thompson and her sister Cheryl Brown Henderson operate a private organization. It is called the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research. It awards scholarships and publishes information about the case.

The Brown sisters say huge gains have been made since nineteen-fifty-four. But they say America still has a long way to go.

Our program was written by Cynthia Kirk and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.