‘With all deliberate speed’: 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education on May 17


The events of recent weeks have made it clear that, despite what Chief Justice John Roberts and the conservative activist Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court would have Americans believe, racism is alive and well in the United States. We are not a color-blind society.

While racism today is rarely expressed in the overt manifestations from our shameful past (KKK cross burnings, lynchings, police brutality), it still manifests itself in numerous more subtle ways no less damaging to the human soul, and is a stain upon our national creed: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …”

TopekaJournalSaturday, May 17th marks the 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (May 17, 1954), acknowledged as one of the greatest U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century. The Court unanimously held that “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Court ordered the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Although the Brown decision did not succeed in fully desegregating public education in the United States, it did put the Constitution on the side of racial equality and galvanized the nascent civil rights movement into a full revolution which culminated with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

PBS has an excellent resource guide for students and teachers. 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education resources.

Bill Moyers of Bill Moyers & Company at PBS writes, With Scant Oversight, Schools in the South Are Becoming Segregated Once Again:

The desegregation of America’s schools was one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement.

But getting there was a wrenching process that threatened to tear apart the very fabric of our society. In the South, the first African-American kids to attend what had previously been all-white schools were greeted with rioters and death threats. Federal troops were required to assure their safety.

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964), Look magazine.

Desegregation’s impact is still felt in our politics; whites’ hostility toward the process was a driving force behind Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” fueling the kind of dog-whistle politics that remain a defining feature of our political culture [today].

Now, a new report by Nikole Hannah-Jones for ProPublica shows that with minimal judicial oversight, Southern schools are once again becoming divided by ethnicity. Hannah-Jones writes:

For decades, federal desegregation orders were the potent tool that broke the back of Jim Crow education in the South, helping transform the region’s educational systems into the most integrated in the country.

Federal judges, often facing down death threats and violence, blanketed Southern states with hundreds of court orders that set out specific plans and timetables to ensure the elimination of racial segregation. Federal agencies then aggressively used the authority of the courts to monitor hostile school systems, wielding the power of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to strip federal dollars from districts that refused to desegregate.

The pace of the change wrought by the federal courts was breathtaking. In 1963, about 1 percent of black children in the South attended school with white children. By the early 1970s, the South had been remade — fully 90 percent of black children attended desegregated schools. Court orders proved most successful in the South, but were also used in an attempt to combat de facto segregation in schools across the country, from New York to Michigan to Arizona.

Today, this once-powerful force is in considerable disarray.

A ProPublica examination shows that officials in scores of school districts do not know the status of their desegregation orders, have never read them, or erroneously believe that orders have been ended. In many cases, orders have gone unmonitored, sometimes for decades, by the federal agencies charged with enforcing them.

Read the entire report at ProPublica.

And for an on-the-ground perspective of what school re-segregation looks like, see Nikole Hannah-Jones’ excellent piece in The Atlantic looking at the process in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Here in Tucson, parents of students in the Tucson Unified School District won a desegregation case back in the mid-1970’s.  That desegregation order remains under the supervision of the court to this day.

The promise of Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate public schools and encourage racial tolerance “with all deliberate speed” has not been fully realized some 60 years later. America still has far to go to fulfil our national creed: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …”

For all men of good will May 17, 1954, came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of enforced segregation. . . . It served to transform the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1960).

Note: If you know of a public event commemorating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education here in Arizona, please post the details in the comments.