TOPEKA -- It is no exaggeration to say, as various notables did on Monday, with very little variance from speaker to speaker, that Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was the most important legal decision of the 20th century.
It is also something of an understatement to add, as most of them did -- from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry at one event to President Bush at another -- that "more needs to be done" to eradicate the separate and unequal situation of the races in America today.
The late Oliver Brown of Topeka, who filed the epochal school desegregation suit on behalf of his daughter Linda, got his due -- as did Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court Justice and in 1954 the able young NAACP lawyer who successfully pressed the landmark case.
Topeka itself was, paradoxically, both an odd and an appropriate site for the history commemorated Monday. Its desegregation suit was one of five being heard by the Supreme Court in 1954, and, in fact, the city's schools had been quietly integrated shortly after the suit was filed. It was picked as the title case of the "separate-but-equal" issue to minimize controversy, since the city harbored little to no racial animosity. Topeka had been home base to John Brown, the antislavery patriarch whose raid on far-off Harper's Ferry, Virginia, was one of the precipitating acts of the Civil War.
In the 1850s, Topeka was also the focus of settlers' resistance to the expansion of slavery and became the "free-state" capital (arrayed against the slavers' capital in nearby Lecompton) in the runup to the war that would see the territory aptly characterized as "Bleeding Kansas."
In short, this middling-sized Middle American state capital, which is situated at the exact geographical center of the continental United States -- at the heart of the heart of the country, as it were -- was a far piece from Mississippi, where, some 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights workers, both black and white, were still laying down their lives in desperate efforts to break down the racial barriers.
A personal note, if I might: My own parents -- born, as it happens, in Mississippi -- are buried in Topeka. At a time in the late '60s when none of their offspring were still living in Memphis (I was in Arkansas), they migrated to Topeka to be near my sister, the wife of a Topeka lawyer. I developed my own relationship to the city later on, when for a longish spell I was associated with a cadre of consciousness researchers at the Menninger Foundation, then one of the nation's preeminent psychiatric institutions.
The Menninger Foundation has since decamped, and, among other signs of urban decline, the city zoo has, for budgetary and other reasons, said goodbye to its reptile building and its striped tigers. Like other American cities -- and for no "white-flight" reason, since its black and Hispanic populations are both small -- it has suffered inner-city blight, with concentric rings of progressively newer and shinier malls marking the transfer of the middle class ever outward.
At their separate-but-equal photo ops, neither Kerry -- who appeared at a proclamation of the anniversary at the State Capitol -- nor Bush -- who formally dedicated Monroe School, focus of the Brown suit, as a national historic site -- said anything memorable. Kerry managed a shot at the administration's No Child Left Behind initiative, and Bush included a somewhat oblique defense of the program in his own remarks.
A solitary anti-Bush picketer was turned away at the Monroe School grounds, and two members of the ragtag Phelps family, a fanatical local antiabortion clan, were led away in handcuffs, shouting "God Hates America!"
He doesn't, we presume. But, on the strength of Monday's goodhearted if somewhat tepid rhetoric at the heart of the heart of the country, coupled with the unsettling news from abroad, we might hope that He indulges us with some benign neglect. n
Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.