60 Years Later: Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

May 19, 2014

Courtesy of the Civil Rights Division 

Six decades ago, in its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court observed, “…it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” 

Education is the foundation of the American dream.  It offers a gateway to opportunity and to a better future, especially for poor and disadvantaged communities. 

Since the 1960s, the Civil Rights Division has fought hard to dismantle racial discrimination and segregation in our nation’s public schools.  As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, the struggle for equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination is not over, and the division is vigorously enforcing civil rights laws to ensure that the promise of Brown is better realized for all of America’s schoolchildren. 

In many cities the vestiges of segregation continue to persist.  With a docket of nearly 200 desegregation cases, the division is actively working to ensure that school districts still under court orders, such as Cleveland, Mississippi, where two high schools less than a two miles apart are still racially identifiable, meet their long overdue obligation to integrate schools. 

The division also works to ensure that districts provide all students with equal access to curricular offerings, including the coursework necessary to prepare them for college, and extracurricular activities.  In Monroe City, Louisiana, the division reached an agreement in 2010 to end severe educational inequities between schools with virtually all black student populations and schools that served most of the district’s white students.  Prior to the agreement, at one high school with 100 percent African-American enrollment, the district offered only five gifted and honors courses and not a single Advanced Placement class.  By contrast, the district offered nearly 70 Advanced Placement, gifted and honors courses at a high school whose student population was 43 percent white.  The division’s consent decree requires the district to take steps to offer the same courses at all of its high schools. 

In recent months, the division has worked to address a more modern form of exclusionary policy: disparities in school discipline.  Too often, the effects of school discipline policies are not felt equally—students of color and those with disabilities receive more frequent and more severe punishments than their peers for comparable misbehavior. 

Last year, a division investigation into disciplinary practices in the Meridian, Mississippi, public school system alleged that black students frequently received far harsher discipline, including arrest and expulsion, than white students for comparable misbehavior. 

A minor school discipline offense should not land a student in a police precinct.  The adverse effects of early interaction with the juvenile or criminal justice systems can be permanent, limiting young peoples’ opportunities for education, employment, housing and even the right to vote for the rest of their lives. 

The division’s agreement with the Meridian school system to stop racial discrimination in school discipline was the first of its kind.  To ensure that other districts know how to prevent situations like the one found in Meridian, the Departments of Justice and Education also released guidance to public schools across the country on their obligations to carry out student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.  This guidance provides templates for schools to adopt effective disciplinary practices that avoid discrimination and take steps to keep all students in school. 

As a government, we have a critical responsibility to fight together to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children.  This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Division remains committed to using all available tools to ensure that every child can learn and thrive without being discriminated against or segregated because of their background. 

The Civil Rights Division’s “Fulfilling the Promise of Brown v. Board of Education” fact sheet is available online.