The Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education 60 years ago began when Oliver L. Brown, a welder, went to court because his daughter Linda could not attend Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kan., seven blocks from her home. The Supreme Court ruled definitively that "separate but equal" has no place in the American Constitution, that separate facilities are inherently unequal.
Sixty years later, residential patterns have resegregated many of our schools. First lady Michelle Obama speaking in Topeka noted "many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them. Too often, those schools aren't equal, especially ones attended by students of color, which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers." And if schoolrooms have resegregated, boardrooms have never really desegregated.
We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. Yet, just as it is important to understand what remains to be done, the historic importance of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown should not be overlooked.
Brown overturned the ignominious Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson, in which the court ruled that separate but equal train facilities fulfilled the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Just as Plessy wasn't solely about train cars, Brown wasn't solely about schools. Plessy legitimized legal apartheid in the United States. African Americans in the South were banned from using white public facilities, libraries, transportation, swimming pools, schools and more. Segregation ruled all aspects of life from birthplaces to graveyards.
With its decision in Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal had no place under our Constitution. It ended legal segregation not just in classrooms but also in all aspects of life.
For those of us who were growing up at the time, the ruling was truly revolutionary. Loving parents, fearful for their children's safety, had taught us to respect the walls that had been built under segregation. We should limit our dreams to the opportunities that existed behind the walls.
In Brown, the Supreme Court declared that the walls were unconstitutional. We had rights. We had to march and protest, sit-in, get arrested, and risk our lives to affirm those rights, but we no longer had walls to limit our dreams. From Brown came the New South. From Brown and the Voting Rights Act came new possibility. And as the election of Barack Obama dramatized, the dreams of our young no longer are limited.
When the Brown decision was announced, the news spread rapidly through Greenville, S.C., where I was raised. People were abuzz, but didn't quite know what desegregation would mean. One neighborhood sage said, it was like a decision to mix salt and pepper together into one jar. "Oh," another said, "that's going to be a long time coming."
And so it was, but from the Supreme Court's decision in Brown, those trying to enforce segregation were on the wrong side of the Constitution and the law. Yet, the end of legal segregation, as we've learned, did not mean the end of discrimination.
In his commencement address to the graduates of Morgan State University, Attorney General Eric Holder noted this isn't simply a problem of "high-profile expressions of outright bigotry," like those of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling or Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
Holder pointed rather to far more damaging, systemic practices that are discriminatory in fact, if not in form. In our criminal justice system, for example, African-American men are more likely to be stopped than whites, more likely to be searched if stopped, more likely to be charged if arrested, more likely to be prosecuted if charged, and, if convicted, as the attorney general noted, are hit with sentences that are on average 20 percent harsher than white men convicted of similar crimes. This systemic discrimination can destroy lives and erase opportunity.
Similarly, Holder rightly singled out the new measures designed to constrict voting that disproportionately disadvantage African-Americans and Hispanics. "These measures," he noted, "are rationalized as a supposed answer to an "epidemic of voter fraud" that "has never been shown to exist."
Racial discrimination remains a battleground in America. The conservative majority in the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has been systematically weakening civil rights laws from voting rights to affirmative action. "Roberts," Holder generously suggested, "assumes that racial discrimination has virtually been eliminated and need not be actively confronted. This is contrary to the experience of most African-Americans and other people of color, no matter how successful."
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissenting from a Roberts' decision, wrote that we should not "wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. ... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race."
Surely her dissent offers greater wisdom for the country. And her position on the court to offer that dissent is a testament to how far we have come, and to the great transformation the Supreme Court helped to launch with its decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.