On the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that struck down separate but equal and ushered in the era of integrated schools, I am reflecting on Chief Justice Warren’s words in his published opinion on the case. On that day in 1954 he wrote, “In these days, 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.”
As a native Memphian, attorney and Memphis school board member, I can see that segregation and integration have left indelible marks on our public school system. The 59 years that have passed since Warren’s sage words have brought us diverse school settings where the benefits of education are more consistently experienced by a larger portion of our society—no question. The charge in the Brown decision was not simply to integrate races in school settings, but to provide consistently excellent education for all children. We are not there yet.
In the 1950’s, parents, students and civic leaders fought for integrated schools under the premise that educational opportunities ought to be equally available to all. Today, zip codes and neighborhoods are still tied to educational attainment and future prospects. Realities in far too many school buildings have not caught up with legislation. A recent analysis from the US Department of Education found that 74 percent of black students attend majority nonwhite schools. Brown defeated the legal basis for the notion that children are different in what they can achieve but we must operationalize that idea in every classroom.
Because of Brown, students cannot be turned away from a school because of their race or ethnicity, but the reality of low-income students of color is that they are often still educated in segregated schools, many of which lack the capacity and resources available to higher income students. Students of color continue to lag behind their white peers, with about one-third of African American students dropping out before graduation. Nationally, 60 percent of whites but only 40 percent of African Americans who start college earn degrees within 6 years.
There are many stunning examples of the promise within the Brown decision as well. An African American student finishing kindergarten today has a world of possibility available to her. Much of that is because of Brown, and the brave people who implemented it. And we have many teachers and schools showing us what is possible when we support our children to meet high expectations. Data from the Department of Education shows that graduation rates were up for all ethnic groups in 2010. Educators like Ashley Foxx in Memphis put a human face on that encouraging data point. She loved sharing children’s literature with her students, but saw a troubling lack of African American characters in their literacy materials. In addition to her teaching load, Ms. Foxx published her first in a series of books to remedy this situation, called Keisha Cane and her Very Sweet Tooth. Ms. Foxx still works as a reading specialist, bridging gaps in literacy with our youngest students.
We need more than examples though; we need new norms for children of color. To do that, we need partnerships in this work—fighting together for educational equity—bringing people together as the NAACP did in Brown. NAACP leaders enlisted 13 dedicated parents representing 20 children to help launch a series of challenges to school segregation that ultimately led to social change on a grand scale. We need more individuals and organizations in the position to clearly see the intersection between race and educational equity to build powerful and lasting alliances rooted in our communities of color. The inequities we still face are daunting and it will take leadership and partnerships at all levels—from living rooms to classrooms to our community organizations—to ensure that we’re reaching the day when educational opportunity is in fact“made available to all on equal terms.”