Black leaders commemorate 70 years of Brown v. Board with call to action

Some of the nation’s most prominent Black political leaders and advocates celebrated the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education Friday by calling for more to be done to end present-day segregation.

Many Black leaders have expressed concerns over limitations on Black history and diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and the Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in schools.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) marked the milestone of the case by highlighting the dangers and vitriol Black students faced during integration.

“Following the ruling, children simply attempting to attend school were met by violent, racist mobs and local officials sued in federal court to keep their districts segregated,” Jeffries said in a statement.

“Now, the most segregated school systems in America can be directly traced to policies put in place by opponents of integration in the aftermath of the ruling,” he continued. “Decades later, it remains deeply troubling and unacceptable that we continue to fall short of ensuring all students can flourish on a level playing field.”

In 1952, Thurgood Marshall led a group of lawyers — Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, Louis Redding, Charles and John Scott, Harold R. Boulware, James Nabrit, and George E.C. Hayes — in arguing a set of five cases before the Supreme Court.

The cases, condensed under Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education, challenged the “shameful” separate but equal doctrine held up by the court in Plessy v. Ferguson.

“Brown had its genesis in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to this country and introduced to the colonies that enslaved them,” Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) said. “So from 1619 to 1954, that’s some 335 years of slavery and convict leasing and lawful segregation.”

“But we know that even after Brown, there’s still invidious discrimination taking place in the country to this day, and we’re still fighting that here in Congress with legislation,” he added.

Green, who introduced the Conscience Agenda last year, said until there is an end to things such as school vouchers and voter suppression, neither the 14th Amendment nor the legacy of Brown has been fulfilled.

“We are opening the doors to resegregate in schools and if we resegregate in schools, we can resegregate society,” Green argued.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said Friday’s anniversary was a day of reflection as much as a day of celebration.

“While we celebrate 70 years of the first Supreme Court decision to break down Jim Crow in education — and the implications were beyond education — that celebration is dampened by the fact that we now have a Supreme Court that has taken out affirmative action and attacked voting rights,” Sharpton told The Hill.

“If this Supreme Court was sitting in 1954, they probably would have not voted for Brown v. the Board of Education,” he said.

Sharpton added that the legacy of Brown v. Board may be disappearing already amid culture wars.

“When I look at the fact that when you have states like Florida banning books and other states backing it up, I don’t know that children would even know what the Brown v. Board of Education meant,” Sharpton said.

During the 2022–23 school year, 153 districts across 33 states banned books, according to the PEN America report, many of which explored topics of race and racism.

One of those books, “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story,” detailed the experiences Ruby Bridges had at 6 years old, as she became one of the first Black children to attend an all-white school following Brown’s decision.

Republican-led states, including Florida and Arkansas, also banned or limited aspects of an Advanced Placement African American Studies course in 2023.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said that segregation can also be seen clearly in the rise in school choice options, or the ability for families to select alternatives to public schools.

Studies show school choice exacerbates segregation in public schools, and today’s schools continue to see segregation at staggering rates.

“[T]he rise in school choice options has given way for public schools to grow more separate and unequal despite our country being more racially diverse,” Horsford said on behalf of the caucus.

“The resegregation we are seeing in our schools is by no means isolated,” he continued. “It is in fact a part of a much larger effort to deny Black communities access to opportunities in our country.”

He added, “Additionally, a lack of federal funding has contributed to this stark disparity, which is why the CBC and Congressional Democrats have continued to work with the Biden-Harris Administration to deliver historic investments in HBCUs and prioritize federal investment in early childhood learning, head start, and Title I funding for traditionally underserved communities.”

Though the Biden-Harris administration has invested $16 billion in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) over the last three years, a December 2022 study by the Education Trust found that districts with predominantly non-white students receive more than $2,000 per student less than predominantly white districts.

In a district with 5,000 students, this would equate to $13.5 million in missing resources.

David Johns, chief executive officer and executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, added that while celebrating the 70th anniversary, there must be an effort to remember those who paved the way for integration.

“We focus on Ruby Bridges — as we should — but not enough people know the names of and the stories of the New Orleans Four … and what it meant to be 6-years-old, taking the physical and emotional and psychological trauma that they endured to go to school, to have access to opportunities,” Johns said.

Ruby Bridges made history in 1960 when she became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South, and for many she is the face of desegregation.

The New Orleans Four, Johns explained, included Bridges, Gail Etienne, Tessie Prevost and Leona Tate.

As Bridges went to William Frantz Elementary School, Etienne, Prevost and Tate headed to McDonogh 19 Elementary School. Just like Bridges, Johns said, he wants to see the three receive their flowers for what they endured to help end segregation.

But, he added, students of today also deserved to be recognized for working to keep the legacy alive, even as schools limit access to books or certain topics.

“There are several of us who live in the legacy of Justice [Thurgood] Marshall and are committed to defending and strengthening democracy and advancing equity, including through schools,” Johns said. “A lot of that education is happening outside of schools; it’s happening on TikTok. It is young people who understand Fannie Lou Hamer teaching that until all of us are free, none of us are free.”

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