Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Lifetime Measured in the Struggle for Equality

A Reflection on the 53rd Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

One sees a great deal in 100 years. In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt was President, there were only 45 states in the union. And African Americans were locked into an ironclad system of injustice known as Jim Crow. This violent negation of democracy was secured by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson and upheld by centuries of brutal custom. Only the most resilient optimist could foresee a day when access to education, public facilities, housing, jobs and transportation were not based on color-coded hierarchy, and the nation could realize a day such as the 53rd anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Fortunately, Oliver Hill was one of those optimists. Hill, who turned 100 years old on May 1, 2007, not only witnessed the demise of that system, but he was one of the legal strategists who helped bring it down. He along with Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, Jack Greenberg and others were part of the legal team that brought an end to legalized segregation in 1954.

Time has a way of reducing even the most far-reaching moments of history into thumbnail sketches and in the case of Brown we see simply a case about segregated education. In reality, the Brown decision marked a legal turning point in which the 14th Amendment was returned to its true purpose. Crafted in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Amendment was intended to protect newly emancipated blacks from state laws that sought to virtually re-enslave them. But a series of Supreme Court decisions culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson chipped away at the Amendment and left blacks nearly defenseless against resurgent racism, particularly in the Deep South. In short, achieving racial democracy in America meant finding a way to revive the spirit of that Amendment.

Inspired by their mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, Oliver Hill - and his classmate and close friend Thurgood Marshall understood this reality. When a group of black students marched out of R.R. Moton High School in Virginia to protest the dilapidated conditions of the building, Hill seized the opportunity to attack segregation. When the parents of eight year-old Linda Brown challenged the policy that sent her to a school miles away from her home simply because she was black, Marshall saw a chance to change the course of history. Joined by school desegregation cases from Delaware, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. that became collectively argued as Brown v. Board of Education, their 1954 Supreme Court victory opened more than the doors of schoolhouses. It led to cases challenging racism in transportation, voting rights and housing. Brown provided a legal foundation that energized the Civil Rights Movement.

But again, one sees a great deal in a hundred years - not all of it pretty.

A half-century after the Brown decision, those groundbreaking contributions are in jeopardy of being undermined. Two generations of American children have matured with no knowledge of legally sanctioned apartheid in education. Although our school systems have not achieved the ideal of integration - many districts are more racially homogenous now than they were in the 1970s -- the days of legalized racial separation were banished to a dark corner of history. Or so we hoped.

Unfortunately, the worst elements of our nation's past are always threatening to resurrect themselves. Much of what Marshall and Hill accomplished may be undone by two cases that are currently before the Supreme Court. Recognizing the trend toward resegregation of public education, school districts in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington adopted voluntary integration plans. For example, the Louisville school board weighed race along with numerous other factors like proximity and student preference and were still able to achieve a notable degree of diversity in their classrooms. Those plans are now under attack by organizations seeking to turn back the clock on racial progress in America.

If successful, the suits filed in Meredith v. Jefferson City Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools v. the Seattle School District will severely hamper the ability of schools to diversify their student body. The result will be a world that looks disturbingly similar to the one that the Brown legal team was born into, one where democracy stops at the threshold of the classroom and the Constitution is a set of neglected principles.

If successful, the lawsuits could mark the beginning of an era in which the 14th Amendment is once again diminished as a tool for creating equality in America. If Brown helped pave the way for the civil rights movement, undermining Brown will be a harbinger of bad days ahead of us.

In 2007, Oliver Hill has lived long enough to see this nation take a momentous step forward and then teeter backward -- and that is something that none of us, regardless of age, can afford to let happen.

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