Half a century ago, parents of 12 elementary school students risked everything to give their children one thing: a racially mixed school experience.
Those parents suffered the repercussions of their decision long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation. They were talked about, discriminated against, burned out, and spat upon. Unmoved by the threats, the group stood firm.
Few moments in history have affected Americans like the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. Fifty years later, that case still has significant impact on education in America. The case has also factored, either directly or indirectly, into such basic beliefs as the separation of church and state, equal rights, and a fair criminal justice system.
The wording by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the decision was clear: "[I]n the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal." This decision was the culmination of an uphill battle for the parents, the NAACP defense team representing them, and the millions of Americans who had been discriminated against under the "separate but equal" doctrine that had governed all aspects of life since it was approved in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case.
Two weeks ago, lawyers from the American Bar Association were in Memphis recreating the Brown trial, complete with actual witness testimony. Jock Smith, law partner of Johnnie Cochran, played lead attorney-turned Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. "Most of us don't understand the importance of Brown v. Board. I don't even think lawyers understand the impact of it," he said. "What I got out of it was how serious the situation was then, how the kids were at risk, the sacrifices the parents made, and the compassion in the hearts of the lawyers."
What we should all understand from Brown are the benefits of the decision. Although the case is linked to Topeka, Kansas, it actually had been consolidated to include elementary school students in four other states. With the desegregation of public schools, years of Jim Crow laws were erased, putting race relations on an entirely new level. The case proved that segregation adversely affected not only black students but whites as well. It is difficult to imagine classrooms without the rainbow of cultures that make for a nurturing environment for all. Now, years later, diversity has become the calling card of most educational institutions, and affirmative action has become a means to achievement.
On Brown's tenets, the civil rights movement took shape, bringing with it equality for women and other minorities. Further, the case provided downtrodden communities with everyday heroes who symbolized perseverance and hope for greater changes to come. For the next 15 years, the Supreme Court, under Warren, heard and decided civil rights cases based on Brown.
In addition to education, Brown provided a blueprint for the desegregation of places where the racial divide often runs deepest: churches, businesses, and politics. It is in these areas where multiculturalism has had the most lasting significance. Cochran, Harold Ford Jr., and even Sean "P. Diddy" Combs would not have attained prominence without Brown.
We all have reason to thank the litigants and Earl Warren, if only for opening our lives to different cultures. There will always be individuals who choose to live within a certain comfort zone, but Brown gives us the opportunity to make that decision for ourselves.
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. More important, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of a new way of thinking.
Janel Davis is a Flyer staff writer.