Brown sisters: Supreme Court's ruling 'unfulfilled'

Although systematic segregation in public schools was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, inequities still exist in the American education system today, according to speakers and panelists at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the 1954 landmark ruling.

Linda Brown Thompson and Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughters of the Rev. Oliver Brown, the first plaintiff listed in the original case against the board of education in Topeka, Kan., were the keynote speakers at the conference held Saturday, April 17, in the Frist Campus Center, Princeton University.

"After nearly 50 years, we find the court's ruling unfulfilled," Thompson said. "There is still de facto segregation throughout much of the United States. The trouble does not stem from the fact that schools are not equal in their physical makeup," she said. "The problems lie in the physical makeup of the inner cities."

The conference, "Brown v. Board of Education: 50 Years Later, Why Are We Still Separate and Unequal?" sponsored by the Princeton Justice Project, examined the progress of the public education system over the last five decades.

The Brown sisters, both former school teachers who now run the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research and an education consulting firm, said that urban public schools are in a new era of segregation. Black and Latino students have become the majority population in most urban public schools, which are in decline due to lack of support, they said.

"Here we are in 2004 talking about failing, underfunded public schools," Henderson said. "All those schools are doing is ensuring that we continue to educate for second-class citizenship in this country."

During their presentation, the Brown sisters also recounted the hardships that led to the landmark legal case 50 years earlier.

Thompson recalled that, although the closest neighborhood school was only four blocks from their home in a predominantly white neighborhood, she was forced to walk seven blocks to catch a bus to travel to an all-black school in another section of town.

"I could only make half that walk, because the cold was just too bitter for a small child to bear," Thompson said. "I can still remember starting that bitter walk and the terrible cold that would cause my tears to freeze on my face. I would return home, running as fast as I could."

Thompson praised her teachers in the all-black school she attended and said the issue for her family was not about inferior facilities. The court case was about access to their neighborhood school, she said.

Although the Brown family's name is listed as the first plaintiff in the famed case, Thompson and her sister pointed out that their father did not initiate or lead the case. Brown's father and other Topeka families were enlisted in the challenge by McKinley Burnett, the head of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "We were recruited, like many others in class actions," Henderson recalled. "Our dad never met Thurgood Marshall. Daddy was probably person number 10 in that list of 13" plaintiffs who were recruited.

Henderson emphasized the role of other civil rights struggles throughout the country that propelled the Topeka case to the Supreme Court and laid the groundwork for victory. Topeka families did not endure the violence, abuse or racial strife that afflicted other cities following the court order. The Topeka elementary schools were integrated in the fall of 1954 without incident.

"It seemed as though blacks and whites had been going to school together for many years," Thompson said. However, Thompson said she was not a beneficiary of the ruling since she began junior high school in the fall of 1954. Unlike the elementary schools, Topeka junior and senior high schools already were integrated.

Nevertheless, the vestiges of segregation remained since black and white students participated in separate extra-curricular activities such as athletic teams, clubs, school dances and other social events, Thompson said.

Both sisters said too little progress has been made and challenged the audience to become active in supporting youth, teachers and public education to ensure the future strength of the country.

The commemoration also included panel discussions led by legal experts, education advocates and Princeton scholars including: Douglas Massey, a sociology and public affairs professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, who discussed the impact of current housing segregation patterns on education; David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark and the lead counsel who represented New Jersey's urban school children in Abbott v. Burke, who discussed the state supreme court ruling in the case that ordered fiscal and education reform in city school districts; and Damon Hewitt, an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who discussed his work in active school desegregation cases.

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601