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Celebrating the 61st Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

This Sunday marked the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case establishing that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  Some sixty one years after Brown, the Department of Justice still works to uphold the promise of equal educational opportunities, including through its remaining desegregation cases.  Although these cases originated decades ago, the educational opportunities at stake are no less important today than at the time of Brown.   

This April, U.S. District Judge Madeleine Hughes Haikala of the Northern District of Alabama approved a consent order in the longstanding desegregation case Hereford v. Huntsville Board of Education.  The order, referred to by the court as a “game changer” in the district’s path toward fully eliminating the effects of segregation, came after an extensive inquiry by the Department of Justice and months of conversations with the school district.  It includes many key reforms.  It will require the district to provide equal educational opportunities to African-American students by:

  • revising attendance zones and growing and strengthening magnet programs to improve diversity at many of its schools;
  • expanding access for African-American students to pre-kindergarten, gifted programs, advanced course offerings such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, academic after-school programs, and college counseling;
  • implementing measures to promote faculty and administrator diversity;
  • ensuring that all students are aware of and can equally participate in extracurricular activities;
  • creating positive, inclusive school climates, and ensuring that student discipline is fair, non-discriminatory and does not unnecessarily remove students from classrooms;
  • establishing a desegregation advisory committee of students and parents to advise the district and inform the court about implementation of the consent order;
  • providing professional development for teachers on such topics as strategies for teaching students from diverse backgrounds, understanding implicit bias and supporting positive student behavior; and
  • continuously monitoring racial disparities to ensure meaningful and sustained improvement in student performance, students’ access to courses and rates of student discipline and other areas. 

There is no doubt that with full and faithful implementation, the consent order will provide many tangible benefits to African American students and to the entire school district.  Judge Haikala’s opinion also made clear the important intangible benefits conveyed through the school district’s commitment.  Judge Haikala’s opinion spoke directly to the students saying, “The consent order begins and ends with the district’s students – all of its students…The district believes in you and in your potential for success.  We all do…. Think about how much the city of Huntsville will benefit from the contributions that you will make in the years ahead as teachers and engineers, as doctors and lawyers, as artists and musicians.  You are an integral part of your community and have so much to offer.” 

In Brown, the Supreme Court famously described the impact of racial discrimination on young students, noting the “feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”  As we reflect on the legacy of Brown and the work still to be done, it is worth keeping in mind not only the damaging message sent by a discriminatory education system, but also the positive message conveyed when people do come together to ensure that all children have equal access to quality education.  


Updated March 3, 2017

Civil Rights