Staying Vigilant on Brown

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As a teenager, many of Barbara Johns’ wildest dreams were about a surprising subject: a new school. “My imagination would run rampant—and I would dream that some mighty man of great wealth built us a new school building or that our parents got together and surprised us with this grand new building and we had a big celebration—I even imagined that a great storm came through and blew down the main building and splattered the shacks to splinters …” Then a day came when 16-year-old Barbara decided to put her dreams into action. “It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school, time for the students themselves to do something about it. There wasn’t any fear. I just thought—this is your moment. Seize it!”

The year was 1951 and Barbara was a junior at segregated Robert R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia. As her sister Joan remembered, “Most of the school supplies that we got were torn and tattered, and we didn’t have enough supplies to write with. The school we went to was overcrowded. Consequently, the county decided to build three tarpaper shacks for us to hold classes in. A tarpaper shack looks like a dilapidated black building, which is similar to a chicken coop on a farm…It was a very difficult setting for trying to learn.” Barbara organized and led 400 students in a strike to protest Moton’s terrible conditions and demand facilities more like the county’s White high school.

NAACP attorneys Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill became involved after Barbara’s persistent calls to their Richmond office, and after the students agreed they were willing to fight for a desegregated school rather than just a better segregated one. The legal case against the Prince Edward County school board was ultimately bundled with four similar cases by NAACP attorneys in Brown vs. Board of Education et al., leading to the landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools sixty-five years ago this month on May 17, 1954.

But the triumph of Brown was sadly not the end of the story for Black children in Prince Edward County. Instead of complying with the Supreme Court decision, the commonwealth of Virginia pursued a campaign of “massive resistance,” enacting a variety of new laws and policies designed to prevent public school desegregation. While other districts eventually gave in, Prince Edward County’s Board of Supervisors continued to refuse to desegregate their schools and instead voted in June 1959 to shut down the county’s entire public school system. It took five years and another Supreme Court decision to finally force the county to reopen its public schools.

And the triumph of Brown is still incomplete—and in renewed danger—for millions of students across our nation right now. The struggle for a quality education for every child is still the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and the promise of ending “separate and unequal” schools has not yet been realized. Sixty-five years after Brown, many of the 58 percent of Black students and 60 percent of Hispanic students who still attend predominantly segregated schools—where 75 percent or more of their peers are minorities—continue to endure inadequate schools, missing supplies, and too many teachers with low expectations for them. Instead of moving to address our nation’s ongoing need to live up to Brown the current Administration is choosing executive and judicial nominees and pursuing regulatory changes all moving in the opposite direction.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, writes in a May 12 op-ed for the Washington Post: “Since April 2018, more than two dozen executive and judicial nominees have declined to endorse the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This week — one that marks the 65th anniversary of the landmark ruling that struck down legal apartheid in this country — the Senate is poised to confirm three of those judicial nominees to lifetime seats on the federal bench. That is simply unacceptable . . . The ugly truth is that declining to offer approval of Brown signals a willingness to question the project of democracy that Brown created — one in which African Americans and other marginalized groups compelled the federal courts to honor the spirit of equal justice embodied in the words of the 14th Amendment. And this isn’t just deeply troubling; it’s also downright dangerous.”

Barbara Johns’ courageous decision to do something about the injustice she saw around her helped change history just like the brave actions of so many other children, youths, and adults during the Civil Rights Movement. But we will not see continued progress unless we remain aware of all current threats and ready to meet today’s insidious attempts at “massive resistance” with a mightier moral resistance of our own. In this evil climate we must be more vigilant than ever to make sure that we keep moving forward, not backwards.