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YOUNGSTOWN Speaker: 1954 ruling was most radical ever

By Joanne Viviano

Saturday, February 7, 2004

Linda Brown had to walk past five schools to get to the black school.
YOUNGSTOWN -- In 1949, Clarendon County, S.C., spent $179 per pupil for white children.
They spent $43 for each black child.
There were 61 buildings -- valued at a total of $194,575 -- for the county's 6,531 black pupils.
For the 2,375 white children, there were 12 schools, worth a total of $673,850.
That was the state of education in the South on the eve of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling on May 17, 1954, that called for the desegregation of America's public schools.
It also was part of the picture painted by Dr. Paul Finkelman on Wednesday as he discussed the landmark decision at Youngstown State University.
Finkelman, a Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa's College of Law in Oklahoma, discussed "Brown vs. Board of Education: The Most Radical Decision in the Supreme Court's History" as part of a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the decision.
"What makes Brown different is that it gives rights to the minority that are not rights other people can take advantage of," Finkelman said. "It's giving something to the minority that the majority does not want."
Not as radical
Other rulings, such as those that guarantee free speech, abortion rights or rights for criminal defendants, were not as radical "because they affect all of us," Finkelman explained.
Linda Brown walked past five schools in Topeka, Kan., to get to the school designated for black children. What her father wanted was for her to be able to go to the best and closest school in their city.
"These demands on the part of the African-American plaintiffs were met by unbelievable resistance by whites," Finkelman said.
While the Brown decision did not immediately lead to desegregated schools -- socioeconomic issues and housing patterns have prevented true desegregation -- it did set in motion a process for fighting segregation in other areas, paving the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other civil rights actions.
To illustrate the significance of the ruling, Finkelman explained the "profoundly segregated society" of the South, where 70 percent of all American blacks lived in 1950.
In the South, segregation was "legal and required." In the North, discrimination was tolerated but not legally sanctioned.
A South Carolina newspaper editorial writer had laughed at the absurdity of segregation in 1898. The writer asked where would segregation end. He said if that the segregated Jim Crow cars on railroad trains already in place should continue, it would lead to segregated street railway cars, passenger boats, waiting areas at transportation stations, eating houses, and waiting areas in the offices of county auditors and treasurers. The article further suggested that courtrooms would have to have separate jury boxes, witness stands and Bibles for blacks to kiss.
Became a reality
According to historian C. Vann Woodward, each of those things, with the exception of segregated witness stands, had become a reality within a few years of the newspaper editorial, Finkelman said.
By 1954, segregated theaters, parks, hotels, meeting halls, elevators, taxis, bars and schools also had emerged in the South.
"If you were black in the South on the eve of Brown, you were in a very odd and strange segregated world," Finkelman said. "If you were born, you were born in a segregated hospital. If you died, you were buried in a segregated cemetery.
"All of these things were designed to segregate and humiliate, on a day-to-day basis, black people," Finkelman said. "Blacks were reminded day in and day out that they were inferior, they were separate, and they were not equal."