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Nation has yet to achieve vision of Brown vs. Board of Education ruling


Cheryl Brown Henderson’s connection to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education is wholly symbolic. She was a young child at the time of the momentous decision, one of plaintiff Oliver Brown’s three children.

The elder Brown’s connection was largely symbolic, also. A welder and a minister in Topeka, Kan., Brown was approached by the NAACP to be one of 13 point people in a legal effort to attack the “separate but equal” doctrine that allowed the segregation of schools there. Brown, who had a union job secure from retribution, was the only man among the plaintiffs, and thus NAACP strategists decided to use his name for the case. “In the 1940s and ’50s, men used to be really important,” Henderson said, drawing a laugh from her audience at the Grand Wayne Center on Tuesday night.

With the 60th anniversary of the landmark decision just a month away, an overflow crowd heard Henderson’s analysis of the Brown decision and where it led us on the issue of race. Her talk was Indiana Tech Law School’s inaugural Distinguished Lecturer Series address.

“School was the battlefront, but society was the target,” Henderson said. “When that decision was handed down on May 17, 1954, at 12:52 p.m., African-Americans had just one moment of hope” when they believed their struggle to fully join society by getting a full education might be ending.

What they didn’t count on, she said, was how strongly white America would push back against the order to desegregate at “all deliberate speed.” Communities found many ways to resist, she said.

“Does anyone know what ‘deliberate’ means?” she asked her audience. “It means … slow.

“In Prince Edward County, Va., officials closed public schools for five years,” Henderson said. “For the majority of folks, there was just no school to go to.”

Even today, with a black president in the White House, Henderson argues that racism still infects our politics, our businesses and our approach to public schools.

Though she believes private schooling may be one way to provide quality education to African-Americans, Henderson believes that with America’s wealth, “There should be no such thing as a failing public school.”

But though it wasn’t a cure-all, Henderson emphasized that the Brown decision not only ended federal support for legal segregation but defined the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

“Brown did that for all of you in this room, not just African-Americans,” she said.

The resegregation of schools by economic and geographic divisions, private schools that cater largely to a single race and recent revelations that even black children in preschools are singled out for harsher discipline, are among problems that Henderson’s father and the others involved in the 1954 decision never anticipated.

Nonetheless, Brown vs. Board of Education was a huge step forward, one that should be celebrated this year even as we use the anniversary to face the racial disparities that still exist. As Henderson put it, “We don’t want to go back. When we hear people talking about the good old days, unh-unh – good for who?”