Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

60 years later: Was Brown v. Board of Education worth it?

FORT LAUDERDALE

At 90 years old and not traveling much, Jack Greenberg didn't make the NAACP's symposium here commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision. But the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund still teaches at Columbia Law School and follows U.S. civil rights laws to the minutest detail.

So he was familiar with the court's ruling in April upholding a Michigan constitutional amendment through which voters turned back affirmative-action programs, and answered unhesitatingly when I called him at his home in New York.

By their logic in the Michigan case, I asked, would the justices find slavery constitutional if voters decided to approve it? "Yes," he said without missing a beat — then added, "well, maybe not slavery."

What made me think I could lead this witness? One of three surviving members of arguably the greatest legal team ever, Greenberg was hired by Thurgood Marshall to help draft and argue the landmark case that overturned legalized segregation on May 17, 1954. An unqualified legal victory, its legacy is also marked by foot-dragging and intransigence.

"Nobody did anything they weren't forced to do," Greenberg said of states and school districts refusing to desegregate, resistance that he says had nothing to do with the court's vague timetable of achieving it "with all deliberate speed" and everything to do with racism.

"They weren't going slowly. They just weren't doing anything," he said. "So you tell them to do something, and they'll say no, they won't do it, and they'll litigate for three or four years, and then the whole educational system is turned inside out."

One of the first places to suffer that upheaval was Little Rock, Ark., where federal troops were mobilized to quell mobs at Central High School in 1957. At the Fort Lauderdale symposium last week, Ernest Green recalled how an initial cadre of 25 black students volunteering to integrate the high school shrank to the "Little Rock Nine," of which he was one.

"There's a long line of people who would tell you how much they supported (integration) in 1957, but that wasn't true," he said. "It was difficult to be standing there by yourself." Yet it was also difficult to tolerate inequity, Green said, adding that before he enrolled, "I thought, 'What the hell could they be doing in that (school) building that was four times the size of our building?' "

Moderating the forum was Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who read from Chief Justice Earl Warren's 1954 decision describing education as "the very foundation of good citizenship" and "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

Panelist Judith Browne-Dianis of the civil rights group the Advancement Project said that equality has yet to be achieved.

"The fact that schools and adults still see (children of color) as inferior, that is something that we haven't fixed yet," she said.

Backing her up is a federal Department of Education study released in March showing black K-12 students 3½ more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than their white peers — a disparity many attribute to a perception of black children as more violent or disobedient than white.

Released just last week is another study, "Brown at 60," from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, proclaiming "great progress, a long retreat and an uncertain future" since the decision.

"The (current) Supreme Court has fundamentally changed desegregation law, and many major court orders have been dropped," the report reads, citing recent rulings that have chipped away at Brown. "Our statistical analysis shows that segregation increased substantially after the plans were terminated in many large districts."

With that dire an assessment, was it all worth it? To any sane person, of course it was. In education, millions of students of all races have made unparalleled achievement under reforms begun by Brown, and the removal of indignities such as separate fountains and Jim Crow travel on buses and trains — to say nothing of being lynched for attempting to vote — goes to the heart of fulfilling the promise of America.

But it takes time, and constant, determined agitation, a sharp-witted 90-year-old on the phone from New York reminds me.

"There's always reason to be despondent," he says. "And there's always a reason for hope."

Robin Washington writes frequently on the history of the civil rights movement. He produced the PBS documentary "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!" about the Supreme Court's 1946 Morgan vs. Virginia decision, one of the NAACP-litigated cases laying the groundwork for Brown vs. Board of Education.

© 2014 McClatchy-Tribune News

Comments
Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing’s dangers

Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing’s dangers

The death last fall of a 20-year-old Florida State University fraternity pledge revealed pervasive dangerous behavior within the school’s Greek system. Andrew Coffey, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge, died from alcohol poisoning after an off-campus party, and a...
Updated: 11 hours ago

Editorial: Confronting racial distrust in St. Petersburg, one conversation at a time

The St. Petersburg Police Department’s heavy presence in Midtown on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the community animosity it stirred have raised a familiar, troubling question: Can St. Petersburg’s racial divisions ever be reconciled?That big ideal ...
Published: 01/19/18
William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

A surge of Democrats seeking local legislative offices and hoping for a "blue wave" in the 2018 election continued last week, led by Bob Buesing filing to run again versus state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa.In addition:• Heather Kenyon Stahl of Tampa has...
Published: 01/19/18
Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

The smiles, applause and at least one hug belied the grim impetus for a gathering last week at a neighborhood center in Tampa — the Seminole Heights killings.The Tampa Police Department held a ceremony to thank those who helped in the investigation t...
Published: 01/19/18

Editorial: State’s warning shot should get attention of Hillsborough schools

The state Board of Education hopefully sent the message this week with its warning shot about the slow pace of the turnaround at Hillsborough County’s low-performing schools.The board criticized the school system for failing to replace administrators...
Published: 01/18/18
Updated: 01/19/18
Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

The Florida Legislature’s abrupt move to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-earned separate accreditation and transform it back into a satellite of the major research university lacks detail and an appreciation for histo...
Published: 01/18/18

Another voice: Self-dealing by nursing home owners threatens patient care

The outsourcing of logistical support services, which became commonplace in the U.S. military in the 1990s and later was adopted by state prison systems, has now come to dominate the nursing home industry. And while nursing homes, unlike the military...
Published: 01/17/18
Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Three years into a crisis with its sewer system, St. Petersburg has a dandy new idea for dealing with the environmental fallout of dumping dirty water into the aquifer. Instead of committing to banning the outlawed practice, a consultant suggested th...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

A substitute teacher at a Plant City elementary school berated a class of fourth graders — and then the school principal. Another compared a student to a stripper. Others were caught napping, hitting children, making sexual remarks, giving students b...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

For the longest time, injured workers in Florida were basically at the mercy of the whims of employers to treat them fairly. A 2003 law aimed at reducing the cost of workers’ compensation coverage for businesses had the desired impact, but it also di...
Published: 01/16/18