Today we mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, when the Court declared that “separate but equal” was no longer the law of the land. We mark this occasion by reflecting on the promise of Brown and on our unfinished work to deliver on that promise 67 years later.
Brown was both an end, and a beginning. It was the culmination of a multi-year and nationwide campaign of students, parents, advocates, and lawyers to change the law on the books and to establish the unconstitutionality of school segregation. But it was only the beginning of a quest to make real the promise of that ruling in school districts and communities across the country—a quest that continues today.
On a personal note, a dozen years after Brown, I began kindergarten in a public school that had only three Black students. By the time I had graduated, the system had adopted a voluntary busing plan across my city’s neighborhoods and my high school was then 35% Black. Before my last year of high school, in the summer of 1975, I read Simple Justice—a marvelous history of the litigation that led up to Brown. I decided I wanted to go to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and be a school desegregation lawyer. And though through twists and turns, I ended up doing primarily voting rights and employment discrimination litigation instead, I never forget the central role schools play. They are, as the Court wrote in Brown, “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.”
Brown was the consolidation of four cases — from Delaware, South Carolina, Topeka, and Prince Edward County, Virginia. In each, Black students had been denied admittance to certain public schools because of the color of their skin. That last case, arising from Prince Edward County, Virginia, has a special resonance when reflecting today on the pursuit of inclusive schools.
Barbara Johns, whose statue now stands in the Nation’s Capitol, was 16 years old when she grew tired of seeing the roomy school bus for white students drive by while she waited for her always overcrowded bus to arrive. Every day Barbara’s bus transported her to a small, ill-equipped schoolhouse in a rural farming town in Prince Edward County. So, one spring day 70 years ago, she organized a student-led walkout to protest the inferior facilities. Later, she and another student wrote a letter to the NAACP asking for help. Simple Justice describes how the students in that strike were threatened with discipline for standing up, as well as how their lawyers took their case to the Supreme Court.
The Brown decision marked the beginning of a decades-long fight to realize the promise of true equality. This fight was met with massive resistance. Prince Edward County, where Barbara Johns led the walkout, closed its public schools—all of them—rather than desegregate. The schools remained closed for six years until another Supreme Court decision forced county leaders to reopen them. Even 25 years later, when I was teaching at the University of Virginia, many of Prince Edward County’s white students continued to attend private schools that had opened as segregation academies.
There were lawsuits throughout the country seeking to realize the promises of Brown filed by the Department of Justice, but also by public interest organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU, and others. Some of those lawsuits are still going on a half century later. The Civil Rights Division is still involved in 140—a sobering number.
At first, the lawsuits were simply about getting Black students into the same buildings as their white counterparts. But in the decades since Brown, DOJ has fought alongside students and families to achieve equality inside those buildings. In doing that work, we have confronted the lingering effects of state-sponsored segregation. And we have found new and sometimes subtle forms of discrimination.
The legacy of Brown is at risk when students of color face unfair school discipline and arrest; when students with disabilities face unnecessary segregation; when students are punished for not following dress and grooming codes that are rooted in race and gender stereotypes; and when students are forced to learn in hostile environments where they are harassed, sometimes even by school officials, for being who they are. Discriminatory discipline and unchecked harassment, like overt racial segregation can, in Brown’s words, affect students’ “hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
In the Civil Rights Division, we recognize the progress we have made since Brown. We acknowledge that the struggle continues. To all of the advocates, educators, parents, and students, who—like Barbara Johns —are using their voices to address the ongoing inequality in our nation’s schools: we are paying attention. And we are working each day to make the Brown real, for all students. Thank you for making your voices heard.