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60 Years After Brown

Last weekend marked the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the five related cases known as Oliver Brown et. al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka.  It struck down the principal that segregation was legal under the Constitution and was the crowning intellectual achievement of the Howard University Law School.

Rarely has one institution played such a profound role in changing history.  With the exception of Louis Redding and Jack Greenberg, who argued the companion case about segregated schools in Delaware, all the cases—involving public elementary schools in Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina and a separate case for Washington, D.C.—were argued by faculty or alumni of the Howard Law School.  Under the direction and mentorship of Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard single-handedly took on the challenge to dismantle segregation; with the spotlight on his protégé Thurgood Marshall and a legal who’s who of Leon Ranson, William Hastie, Oliver Hill, Spotswood Robinson, George E. C. Hayes, James Nabrit, Jr., Loren Miller, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Frankie Muse Freeman and Robert L. Carter.

While Brown crowned that intellectual feat, earlier victories were also important.  Led by Marshall, these cases broke down barriers in higher education, equal pay, public transportation and residential segregation. In 1936 with Houston in Pearson v. Murray, ended segregation of the University of Maryland Law School (which had denied Marshall entry based on his race). In 1938 in Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada ruled that Missouri could not meet the needs of Black students pursuing law by sending them to other states to study. Marshall in cases argued with Houston, Hastie, Hill and Ranson in 1939 and 1940 oversaw Mills v. Board of Education of Anne Arundel County and Alston. v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, winning equal pay for Black public school teachers;  in 1946 with Hastie in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia ruling that federal anti-discrimination laws on interstate bus routes trumped Virginia’s segregation laws; in 1948 in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma ending segregation at Oklahoma’s only public law school, and with Miller in Shelley v. Kramer that while race restrictive covenants in deeds were permissible, they could not be enforced by a court, removing an important pillar that maintained housing segregation; and 1950 in Sweat v. Painter on the inadequacy of Texas’ racially separate law schools. McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents ended practices of racial isolation of a doctoral student. 

On the immediate heels of the Brown decision, later in 1954 Freeman was the lead in Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority ending segregation in public housing in St. Louis, and in 1955 Roundtree in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company settled the legal issue ending segregation on interstate buses.

The litany of cases highlights a legacy of barriers in all walks of life, a history driven home in a poignant article by Ta-Nehisi Coates making a case for reparations.  A key contribution of Coates’ article is to remind America that “equal opportunity” is a meaningless concept when centuries old legacies deal hands that are inherently unequal due to malice.

A report released last week by the National Urban League’s Washington Bureau on access to college for African Americans underscores the problems faced in bringing the full promise of Brown and equal educational opportunity to the 21st Century.  As Coates quotes Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Commencement Address to Howard University that “Negro poverty is not white poverty,” African American college students are not white college students.  Black college students are the poorest of any racial group, with 47.4% of those who are dependent on parents coming from families with incomes below $30,000; explaining why 83.5% apply for aid and 59.9% qualify for zero expected family contributions toward their education and 22.5% getting near the maximum Pell Grant.  This still leaves them needing to borrow 64.6% of their unmet college cost need.

Overcoming all these barriers, the Center for Economic Policy and Research reports that last year, 2013, 12.4% of recent Black college grads were unemployed, compared to 5.6% for all recent grads.  And, among those employed, 55.9% were stuck in jobs that don’t require college degrees, which a recent Demos report notes makes the higher debt load of black college students different.

These differences need to weigh heavily on how we have structured higher education to be privately financed by students, not as a public investment in our nation’s future.  And, when we design higher education policy guidelines to create accountability in the system, we need to think of the challenge those legacies mean for Historically Black Colleges, like Howard University--schools that remain committed to educating large numbers of black students.

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