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Sixty years ago, the course of civil rights in America changed with the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
Ten years later, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations, the civil rights movement took another giant leap forward.
But today, 50 years later, much work still needs to be done if true equality is to be achieved in the United States. That message was trumpeted loud and clear by the panel at “A Turn to Justice: Examining the Dream of Brown and the Civil Rights Act,” Friday at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Boston.
The program, presented by the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, also included recognition of the “Freedom Riders.” In 1961, about 400 young Americans participated in a social experiment to challenge a segregated society. These brave people risked physical injury and imprisonment by traveling together in interracial groups and sitting where they wanted on trains and buses. They were met with bitter racism and many were beaten or jailed, but their courage and sacrifice over eight months helped change American society and its perception towards race.
The event was attended by two of the Freedom Riders, Dr. William E. Harbour and Hank Thomas, as well as the daughter of Freedom Rider Clarence Melvin Wright, Susan D. Wright, who is a director with ABA’s Membership and Marketing Division.
Former two-term mayor of Detroit and previous ABA President Dennis W. Archer Jr. delivered an emotional keynote address in which he acknowledged the problems that exist today but expressed optimism and confidence that they could be overcome since the country was aware. He praised the Freedom Riders, saying he felt “inadequate” to tell their story and that “all of America stands on their shoulders.”
The theme of the program centered on recognizing the past but concentrating on the future. In opening remarks, ABA President James R. Silkenat said, “We cannot take today’s diversity for granted. The momentum started by Brown and the Civil Rights Act must be continued.”
The panelists pointed out the racial disparities in educational opportunities and in incarceration rates. Jenny Rivera, associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals, noted that there has been great demographic change in the country. Latinos now make up 17 percent of the population and continue to be its fastest growing segment. But she also noted that many schools remain highly segregated and that Latinos have a 14 percent high school dropout rate compared to 5 percent for white students.
Kim M. Keenan, general counsel and secretary for the NAACP, echoed that schools were important but there were other issues. “Education was the key,” she said, “But the lock was progressive voting rights.” She cited the statistic that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of its people in prisons and wondered where we would be as a society if we spent as much on education as we do on incarceration.
While the panel agreed that overt racism has declined greatly in our society, they did note that other forms of discrimination are still prevalent. Socio-economic segregation in schools can have the same impact as racial segregation, said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee's Voting Rights Project. These segregated schools lack the resources to fully educate their students. Because schools are become more segregated, she noted, our education system is falling behind the rest of the world. “Every student benefits from diversity,” she said.
Professor Rodney O. Fong, co-director of the University of San Francisco School of Law and member of the ABA Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, pointed out the dangers of unconscious bias and stereotype threat. He cited studies where racial perceptions unconsciously influence hiring, promotions and even criminal sentencing. As for stereotype threat, Fong noted that minorities can underperform precisely because there is more stress placed upon them to try harder to succeed. “We need to check ourselves, before we turn our biases into action,” he cautioned.
Panel moderator Reginald M Turner Jr., chair of the ABA Commission on Ethnic and Racial Diversity in the Profession and a past ABA president, noted some recent court decisions that have begun to undercut Brown. “We need to become more aware and bring others along with us,” he urged. He emphasized that legal strategies were not the only solution. That community involvement and even protest were also valuable tools.
Keenan summed up the consensus of the panel saying that Brown and the Civil Rights Act were important steps but that the gains started by these events need to be built upon. “The struggle continues,” she said. “Because until we get it right, we have to continue to struggle.”