HOW HE SEES IT Marking 50 years of Brown ruling
When Mrs. Irene Shropshire told our fifth-grade class at the new, all-black M.W. Gibbs Elementary School in Little Rock, Ark., during the 1954-55 school year that, "you will have a chance for equality," I did not know what she was talking about.
The KKK markings inside and outside our new school that year notwithstanding, as a fifth-grader, I did not get a full grasp of how close we were to the epicenter of the bombshell dropped by the United States Supreme Court on May 17, 1954. In its Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the court had declared its previous "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional, and racial segregation in public schools was illegal.
I did not get a full grip on what Brown vs. Board meant for the nation until I was in the ninth grade at Dunbar Junior High School in 1957, when federal troops came to Little Rock to quell violence and protect nine of my classmates who desegregated Central High School.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board, and many colleges, schools, churches and community groups across the nation are taking the time to reflect on its impact. They are also asking questions about whether Brown vs. Board is relevant today.
A local Brown vs. Board 50th Anniversary Committee, comprising Youngstown State University faculty and staff and public school administrators, has planned a series of events to remember the historic decision. Activities include educational events such as essay and poster contests during March in Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana schools; YSU student and faculty forums in March; a film series at YSU in March and April; an address by retired Federal Appeal Court Judge Nathaniel Jones in April at YSU; and oratorical presentations, an African-American Quiz Bowl, awards ceremonies and a drama at YSU in May.
Upon reflection, it is impossible for one not to see how Brown was the catalyst for so many positive changes in America. It was the impetus for ending legal racial segregation in virtually all forms of public endeavor. Its offspring include:
UThe Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated all public accommodations.
UThe Voters Right Act of 1965, which banned discrimination in voting.
ULaws banning discrimination against women, people with disabilities and gays and lesbians.
But despite all of the good that Brown vs. Board sparked, it was not a panacea. One of the great ironies of Brown vs. Board is the fact that there is more (de facto) racial segregation today in many schools in urban centers of the North than there is in the South. While discrimination in employment and some public facilities existed in the North in 1954, the student bodies of most northern urban public school districts were fully integrated back then.
There are other ironies too. The Army's 10lst Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky., now fighting terrorism so gallantly in Iraq, came to Little Rock nearly 50 years ago (1957) to fight the terrorism of whites who opposed desegregation. Thurgood Marshall, the brilliant legal mind who argued Brown vs. Board's successful outcome and the first black to serve on the Supreme Court, was replaced by Clarence Thomas, who is also black and a beneficiary of affirmative action. Justice Thomas is also a staunch opponent of most civil rights cases that come before the tribunal.
So as we look at the legacy of Brown vs. Board during this year of commemoration, we need to accentuate the positives (and there are many), but we also need to look at how issues of race continue to divide us. That means that those who agree with the benefits of Brown vs. Board will have to listen to those who do not, and vice versa. That is one of the key objectives of our committee. We believe that if our objectives are accomplished, this area and the nation will benefit.
XLeon Stennis is the coordinator of diversity initiatives at Youngstown State University. The schedule of events for YSU's Brown v. Board of Education commemoration is available on the Internet at www.ysu.edu//eod/events.pdf.