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June 03, 2024 Civil Rights

70 years after Brown, school segregation remains

One of the most important cases in U.S. Supreme Court history — Brown v. Board of Education — was decided 70 years ago. But for all of Brown’s significance, it took many years after the ruling to integrate the nation’s public schools, and many school systems remain virtually segregated today because of segregated neighborhoods and honors classes that are predominantly white, according to several legal experts in a May 14 program, “Brown v. Board at 70: Is the Battle Over?” sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division.

Legal experts discussed the state of school integration at the ABA Judicial Division program “Brown v. Board at 70: Is the Battle Over?”

Legal experts discussed the state of school integration at the ABA Judicial Division program “Brown v. Board at 70: Is the Battle Over?”

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In its 1954 Brown opinion, the Supreme Court famously rejected the concept of “separate but equal” schools for white and Black students. “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” the court unanimously ruled. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

And yet despite this ruling, many school districts, particularly in the South, fought hard to keep their classrooms segregated, under the flag of “massive resistance.”

Senior Judge Odell McGhee II of the Iowa District Court grew up in the small town of Liberty, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s. He recalled that many of the state’s schools were not integrated until the 1970s. Even today, McGhee said, many Mississippi schools remain segregated, with white students in private schools and Black students in public schools.

Thomas Saenzpresident of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, recalled an unusual response to Brown in the Southwestern states that he called “Texas-style integration.” School officials in Texas, Denver, Los Angeles and elsewhere proposed integrating Black and Latino students with each other, while leaving white students in their own segregated schools.

“So the resistance to the implementation of Brown extended beyond the Deep South to the Southwest, using this peculiar notion of integrating only two out of three races of prominence in certain communities,” Saenz said.

School segregation continues today, said Jay Blitzman, a retired juvenile court judge in Massachusetts, because people of different races and ethnicities often live in different neighborhoods. “Geographical segregation has contributed to the reality that, sadly, we are still living in a very real sense in a world which is separate but very unequal,” he said. “Geographical segregation … drives educational segregation. Where you live matters.”

Even within nominally integrated schools, segregation persists, Saenz said, particularly in high schools with honors classes, AP courses and international baccalaureate classes. “What you will see in those classrooms is a student body that does not look like the integrated student body of the school as a whole,” he said.

Lawyers must continue to fight for integrated schools, said U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe L. Webster of North Carolina. “We need more courageous lawyers,” Webster said. “Lawyers who are willing to take on civil rights cases for little or no money. … I'm really, really, really concerned about my Black and brown grandchildren.”

Tona Boyd, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said her group and others “will continue to do the work started in Brown to fully realize the purpose and potential of the equal protection clause.”

The program was co-sponsored by the ABA Council for Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, the ABA Division for Public Education, the ABA Criminal Justice Section and the ABA Section for Civil Rights and Social Justice.

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