Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

February 19, 2004

50 years later: Beyond Brown v. Board of Education

“Brown is the most revolutionary opinion in constitutional history,” said legal scholar Paul Finkelman, “because it is the first time the Supreme Court extended a fundamental benefit to a minority at least at the perceived expense of the majority.”

Finkelman acknowledged that a strong case can be made that whites also benefited from the Brown decision, which ended the constitutional protection of school segregation. “But from the perspective of white Southerners, blacks were granted rights that infringed on their own,” he said.

“Other cases have been brought by minority groups that gained court backing — for example, decisions expanding the rights of Communists or radicals or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are outside the mainstream, but the fact is those decisions are available for all of us to use.”

What the Brown decision serves to remind Americans today was how different life was just five decades ago, especially in the South where 70 percent of African Americans lived, Finkelman said.

“When I described segregation to a Chicago community college class of mostly minority students in 1973, they looked at me like I was from Mars,” he said.

“From birth to death, segregation for blacks meant carrying a mark of inferiority, of not fit to associate with whites,” he said. “Black schools were inferior. Justice was white. Lawyers were white. By day, you’d be a cop; by night, you’d wear a white sheet.”

Louisiana had separate ticket windows at the circus. Mobile, Alabama, had a 10 p.m. curfew for blacks. Florida required that school books be stored separately over the summer. In New Orleans, the red light district was segregated. Georgia maintained separate tax lists by race. And in South Carolina, children were segregated in state schools for the blind.

As the South was industrialized, factories prohibited races from working together or using the same doors or restrooms. And the list of “ingenious” forms or racism goes on, Finkelman said.

“The irony of Brown,” Finkelman said, “is it set the stage for ending all the discrimination I described, except the one thing that decision was all about: the public schools. Within a decade of the Brown decision, the signs of ‘whites only,’ ‘blacks only’ were gone. The South today is so radically different that most people born since Brown don’t remember segregation.”


“Thoughts about Brown are central to any discussion of race relations in the U.S.,” said symposium panelist Robert Cottrol. “Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case, said on Dec. 8, 1953, ‘Why of all the multitude of groups do you have to single out Negroes?’

“How do you justify enslaving people when the documentation upon which the country is founded says that all men are equal?”

The answer to that is perplexing and frustrating, Cottrol said. But he advocated a comparative focus to put Brown in context. “Brown had world-wide reverberations,” he said. Irish Catholics in the 1960s, the fight to end the caste system in India, and more recently, the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa — all took inspiration from the U.S. civil rights movement, Cottrol said.

A 1951 legal event in Brazil paralleled Brown.

“Brazil enacted the first national civil rights statute, setting a tone, and making race discrimination criminal,” he said. Did it create a racial democracy free from prejudice? “That’s only a myth.”

Ironically, it redirected attention to racial discrimination as the aberrant act of a few criminals, instead of endemic to society.

“It did not end the structural barriers in the educational system,” Cottrol said, which had been skewed toward the  advancement of whites.

On the other hand, it prompted the current raging debate over affirmative action and race-specific remedies in Brazil, and it led to the desegregation in Brazil’s foreign service as an example of many government agencies that were exclusively white, he said. “So there’s much to learn from the Brazil example: what kinds of mechanisms and remedies that are effective in their civil rights odyssey in post-World War II.”

Similarly, Brown also marked “the beginning of the end of American law’s caste system, a movement still moving slowly, still not complete, and it did not spell the end of inequality,” Cottrol said. But confronting issues of inequality, the legacy of stigma, and under-appreciated achievement couldn’t have occurred without Brown and the civil rights movement, he added.

“Now we face the vexing question of remedies: affirmative action, mixed-race categories, reparations and so forth. But that’s a topic for another symposium.”

Lia Epperson described her perspective from the trenches of continuing litigation for equal rights.

“The story of Brown did not end in 1954; civil rights litigation on school segregation still exists,” Epperson said, with 75 related cases  on the Legal Defense Fund’s docket. “What have we seen after 50 years of hard work? Fifty years ago there was legal apartheid in American society, not only in education, but discrimination in employment and housing and criminal justice.”

“But in 21st century America, I am struck by what I still see in American public schools. In Alabama in 2004, I still see schools that are overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly black, and it’s not simply separate schools. The black schools are far inferior schools,” she said, in both their facilities and educational quality.

“One question lingers: If we still have a system of inequality in America, why hasn’t the promise of Brown been realized? I draw hope from a statement Thurgood Marshall made, not 50, but 30 years ago: ‘Desegregation is not nor was it ever expected to be an easy task.’ It is a difficult task and progress is slow.”

Ten years after Brown, 98 percent of black students in Southern states still attended segregated schools, she said. “With an executive branch that has remained silent, and the Supreme Court giving vague guidelines, it made it necessary for lawyers to sue individual school districts to comply with Brown.”

In cases where that succeeded, Epperson said, post-desegregation schools have seen positive results. “At least we can say there’s evidence that desegregation where successful has been helpful: The test scores gap between whites and blacks narrowed markedly, and  many more blacks are getting through high school and more are entering four-year colleges.”

On the other hand, Brown has been under attack in the last decade, she said. The courts eventually abandoned the task of suing school districts, and have moved to restore power to the school districts minus federal interference, Epperson said. “And we see the result of that local control: That control is not interested in educational equality. For them to argue the acceptability of segregation as ‘personal choice’ is the same argument as Plessy,” the 1896 case that Brown overturned.

“As the saying goes, ‘green follows white.’ White means better facilities, more computers, better educated teachers, more high-level courses offered.”

Yet the legal advocate sees some rays of hope, including the recent University of Michigan law school case where the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action admissions policies in Grutter v. Bollinger. “I see that as the most profound statement on race over the last 30 years. Of course, it’s all relative, because they haven’t made many positive statements in that timeframe.”

But the court in Grutter did acknowledge that context matters, and “that certain groups face unique circumstances because, unfortunately, race still matters in America,” she said.

The court’s opinion even quoted Brown, Epperson pointed out: “Education is the very foundation of good citizenship.”

“I have to be optimistic or I couldn’t do the work I do,” Epperson said. “Brown may not be the best we could have gotten, but I’m hopeful that while the promise of Brown is lacking, we’ve made some progress.”

—Peter Hart



Leave a Reply