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'54 ruling was only the start

Saturday, May 1, 2004


Segregation and integration -- the two words are forever linked in the history of race in the United States.
Black people, particularly those who grew up in the South, knew what segregation meant.
Segregation dictated where you could eat and live and what bathroom and drinking fountain you could use.
Segregation declared that black people were inferior to white people. It was a system that essentially created two Americas.
The infamous "separate-but-equal" doctrine declared that as long as blacks and whites had equal facilities, the races should remain separate. The inherent problem with the doctrine, however, was that blacks seldom, if ever, had equal anything with whites.
This was most apparent in educational opportunities for the two races, particularly in the public schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that segregation was constitutional. The court's ruling led to segregation of the races in most public domains, including the schools.
Landmark 1954 ruling
That same court, however, on May 17, 1954, shifted its position, and unanimously ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
As author David Halberstam wrote in a Parade magazine article last month, "The Brown decision began the birth process -- however slow, however difficult, however painful -- of a new America."
The 50th anniversary of that historic decision has been celebrated throughout our land this year. Youngstown State University's Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity has had several events to call attention to the decision and to reflect on its impact.
Another event regarding the Brown decision takes place at 6 p.m. tonight in the Chestnut Room of YSU's Kilcawley Center. The Brown vs. Board of Education 50th Year Commemoration Committee is sponsoring an original play about the decision written by Warren native Rozz Chapman. The play, a musical drama, features Youngstown pupils and local adults. Admission is free.
Laid groundwork
As Leon Stennis, coordinator of diversity initiatives at YSU, wrote in a column in this newspaper in March, the Brown decision provided the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned discrimination in voting -- and it paved the way for affirmative action initiatives.
This new America, however, had its growing pains. The riots in urban cities in the 1960s, including Youngstown, will attest to that.
The Brown decision, however, paved the way for integration, which is now the norm rather than the exception.
Black people have been elected mayors of cities, have served and are serving on the Supreme Court, and are CEOs of major companies.
But not all is well in black America.
As Halberstam wrote, "Overcoming the damage of 200 years of racism may prove to be the most difficult of American journeys."
The crux of the matter boils down to simple math.
A long way to go
Fifty years of enjoying all the rights and privileges guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution does not trump more than two centuries of a race of people treated first as property and then as second-class citizens.
That is why black people continue saying that though times are indeed better, we still have a long way to go.
Let me point out some examples:
UWarren police and their chief remain under intense scrutiny by the black community for their treatment of black residents during traffic stops.
UForty-seven percent of black women business owners say they have encountered obstacles or problems when trying to obtain business financing. Only 28 percent of white women experience the same problems.
UBlack teens are three times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than white teens.
UThe national unemployment rates for blacks is more than double that of whites.
UThere are more black men in prisons than in our nation's colleges and universities.
Despite our country's continuing struggle with racism, the importance of the Brown decision can never be minimized. It may be the most important decision ever made in this nation.
ebrown@vindy.com