2004-05-21 / Community

Meeks Comments On Brown V. Board Of Education

Meeks Comments On Brown V. Board Of Education

The following statement was made by local Congressman Gregory Meeks on the date of the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown Vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision which ended the "separate but equal" doctrine in America.

May 17, 2004, marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education, as the combined cases that also included suits filed in South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, was known.  Although Brown has its detractors, including a number of imminent African American scholars, the monumental significance of this decision stands in bold relief against the backdrop of the last half-century. Brown is the basis of indisputable civil rights progress, despite "massive resistance" to desegregation of public schools, despite retrogression in equal access to a quality public education. Yes, there have been setbacks and backsliding in the enforcement and implementation of the letter and spirit of the Brown decision. There has also been the effect of developments that the 1954 decision could not anticipate, like "white flight" and right wing domination of the presidency, Congress, and federal judiciary.  But, largely because of the letter and spirit of the Brown decision, America of 2004, thank goodness, is not the America of 1954.

The courage of the African American litigants, the brilliance of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund team, trained by Howard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston and led by Thurgood Marshall, Robert L. Carter, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson III, Louis L. Redding, Jack Greenberg, and others, and the unanimity of the Warren Court, which lent power and moral authority to an eventual anti-segregation consensus, constitute a great turning point in American history.  Upon this momentous decision, America turned away from its own brand of apartheid, turned toward making real the promise of the Declaration of Independence that "all men [and women] are created equal," and turned out the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which in 1896 established a system of "separate but equal" that either in law or in fact reduced African Americans to state-endorsed and state-enforced second class citizenship. 

Inherent to this second class status was the implication that African Americans were not just inferior, but so inferior that they could not associate with

whites — not in public accommodations, not in politics or governance, not in the voting booth, not in housing, not in schooling, not in health care, not in parks and swimming pools, not at drinking fountains, not even in the graveyard.

It took our nation 58 years to reverse Plessy, with the Court concluding in Brown that there is no such thing as "separate but equal." Applying the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court said "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The ramification of this judgment was profound.  Seizing the rationale of Brown v. the Board of Education, the African American community and its allies unleashed an historic upsurge in the civil rights movement. A year after Brown came the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Two years after Brown came Autherine Lucy’s attempt to integrate the University of Alabama. Three years after Brown came the desegregation confrontation at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Six years after Brown came the sit-in movement. Seven years after Brown came the Freedom Rides as well as Charlayne Hunter’s and Hamilton Holmes’ integration of the University of Georgia.  Eight years after Brown came James Meredith’s integration of the University Mississippi. Nine years after Brown came the Birmingham campaign, Vivian Malone and James Hood’s integration of the University of Alabama, the March on Washington, and a federal court order to integrate public schools in Birmingham, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, and Mobile, Alabama.  A decade after Brown came Mississippi Freedom Summer and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Eleven years after Brown came the Selma to Montgomery March and adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, practice before Brown and since Brown demonstrates that whether segregation is de jure or de facto, whether it occurs because of custom, as result of housing patterns, or as function of funding inequities, the educational facilities in which Black and other minority children are concentrated are rarely equal. All of this reflects the widespread and often insidious resistance to the letter and spirit of Brown. The Supreme Court itself may have helped set the precedent for delay and obstruction in 1955 when it ordered not immediate relief for the plaintiffs, but implementation "with all deliberate speed."

Nonetheless, the struggle continues today at a deeper level because of Brown. In spite of decades of relentless assaults on the central tenets of Brown, we in the 21st century are still able to bask in the afterglow of the most pivotal Supreme Court decision of the 20th century.

Brown held that segregation in public education had to be evaluated "in light of the full development of public education and its present place in American life throughout the Nation." Brown held that "where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." Brown held that "Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal education opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal."  Thus, "we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

The struggle continues, as does the ever-increasing importance of education in American life.  In recent years this continuing struggle to fulfill the letter and spirit of Brown v. the Board of Education has been manifested in the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s diversity program, and in my home state in the New York State Court of Appeals’ affirmation of New York State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse’s landmark decision on equity in school funding brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. If "separate but equal" schools are inherently inferior certainly inequitably funded schools and school systems are inherently inferior.

These and other cases address structural and systemic racial inequities in public education that constitute new forms of de facto segregation. There are other offending practices as well, such as tracking and "gifted and talented programs" and special education designations that confine far too many Black and Latino children to a second class education within ostensibly integrated public school systems.

Education is more essential now to full participation in society than it has ever been. Let our nation demonstrate in deeds that no child will be left behind solely for reasons of race.  Let our nation demonstrate that no child will be left behind for any reason.

Though he advocates testing and standards for the nation’s public school students, the President has failed his own test when it comes to fulfilling his commitment that his own administration would leave no child behind. 

He has graded well below the standard he himself set for funding the No Child Left Behind Act. The President’s budget for fiscal year 2005 shortchanges Title 1 funding by $7.2 billion and the NCLB Act by $9.4 billion. In total, he has underfunded NCLB — his own program — by $26.5 billion or 21.7 percent. Even on this day of celebration and commemoration he offers not remedies but rhetoric, not meaningful programs but platitudes.

Lastly, I encourage parents and students to resist the stigma of inferiority regardless of whatever sources impose or project it.

I appeal to African American parents and students in particular to accept the challenge of not only getting a quality education, but also of becoming an educated, committed, civically-conscientious citizen.

I urge my colleagues in both houses of the United States Congress and in state and local legislatures to make real the rhetoric espoused on this day by providing the resources our public schools need and by passing legislation ensuring funding equity.

Let every American draw inspiration from the parents who filed suit on behalf of their children, from the skill and persistence of the NAACP lawyers and sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clarke who demonstrated the innovative power of Black intellectual capacity, and from their white colleagues and expert witnesses and the nine Supreme Court justices who expressed a breadth and depth of anti-racism. 

Let is be said that the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas inspired a new level and a new dimension of struggle for equality in all facets of American life.

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