May 17, 2020, marked the 66th Anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. A landmark decision by the Warren Court, Brown ruled that segregation in public schools was by its very nature incapable of fulfilling the separate but equal doctrine. That the act of separation in and of itself imbued an inescapable status of inequality and as a result, those students subjected to segregation would invariably feel inferior regardless of whether the education, schools, teachers, and classrooms were of relatively similar or even equal quality or not.
Since then, Brown has been the law of the land, overruling in its entirety the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, that established for the next 50 years the separate but equal doctrine as the law of the land. For the record, when it comes to education, separate but equal was certainly separate, but never equal.
May 17, 2020, also marks the 66th Anniversary of opposition to Brown and its mandate of de-segregating public school systems across America. After the ruling became public, by late afternoon of that same day, Southern politicians began denouncing the decision and their intentions to defy it by whatever means necessary.
By 1956, influential Senator Harry Byrd was leading the charge. He created a coalition of roughly 100 Southern politicians who signed onto his “Southern Manifesto.” As part of their plan, Byrd further called for a “Massive Resistance” movement that included legislation forcing any school that willingly integrated to lose all state funding, this with the intention that it was better to have schools close than integrate under Brown. Many schools did just that.
In one such defiant response to a Brown order to integrate, Prince Edward County in Virginia chose to close its entire public school system. It remained closed for five years.
President Eisenhower was skeptical of the Court’s decision privately admitting “I don’t believe you can change the hearts of men with laws.”
On September 3, 1957, one of the higher-profile acts of Southern defiance took place at the Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas. On the first day of school, the previously all-white institute was set to enroll nine students of color. The “Little Rock Nine”, as they came to be known, soon found themselves in the center of a controversy now referred to as the “Little Rock Crisis”.
To prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering the school, Governor Orval Faubus had called out the armed National Guard and ordered them to block the entrance to the school.
One of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford later recounted her experiences that day.
“I walked up to the guard who had let the white students in… When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards closed in and they raised their bayonets. They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn’t know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me… I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd—someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”
Both television and newspapers were there to capture the scenes of hatred, racism, and discrimination and the massive resistance became a scandal of national and international dimensions.
Days later, to quell the violence, Eisenhower became the first president since 1877 to order Federal Troops to occupy a southern state. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote directly to Eisenhower for his support.
The troops stayed in Arkansas, Governor Faubus closed the school. The Massive Resistance persisted. In 1964, less than 2% or southern blacks attended otherwise all-white schools.
Are things better today? Arguably, yes. No one has called out the National Guard lately. Private education, vouchers, charter and magnet schools, the move to re-introduce religious doctrine as part of the scholastic curriculum, Betty DeVos… All these disruptors and distractors from public education are with us today. Did Brown work? Or, should we say the evil people do even if it involves their children as innocent hostages in an unseemingly unnecessary but ongoing process where it may be wise to measure success one pupil at time. Or, perhaps Ike was right and legislation is not the answer. Ike wasn’t usually wrong, you know.
Time for a Re-Phil?