“We come then to the questions presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal education opportunities? We believe that it does.” That is a small excerpt from the Supreme court opinion on Brown V. Board of Education given on May 17, 1954. The goal of Brown v. Board of Education was to unify schools and communities and create a productive learning environment for all students.
Whether that actually unified or divided communities is the question. Through primary source documents and secondary opinions on the topic it has been unveiled that Brown v. Board may not have achieved out its goal.
“Topeka, Kansas, was not located in the deep south and did not have the same history of violence in relations as, for instance, a place like Birmingham, Alabama.” It was shocking when such a large case came out of a town that was viewed as being very quiet when it came to race relations.
There were no bombings, riots, or large scale protests in the past. Topeka certainly had its encounters with different racial issues over the years but it didn’t fit the requirements of the stereotypical southern community in the 1900s. Topeka’s unique history of race relations directly relates to their refusal to integrate schools.
Seventeen states in the United States had mandatory segregation; Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Kansas law did not require that schools be segregated. Instead, it was left up to local school districts to decide if they would be segregated or not. This meant that not all schools were segregated, in fact, there were quite a few schools that were integrated simply because they could not afford to add another school. “If a school district wanted to segregate its schools it would have to be able to afford the cost.” Many small town schools were not able to segregate because they couldn’t afford the cost of another school.
In 1879 a law was passed that permitted segregation in elementary schools in cities of “the first class” or with a population of over 15,000. This law, along with the financial side continued to prevent many small school districts from segregating. One school board went as far in defending their decision and said that African American children and white children had “somewhat different intellectual requirements.” More than once a case was brought to the Kansas Supreme court regarding a school’s attempt to segregate. In 1879 there were only three school districts that were large enough in Kansas that were able to legally segregate. Schools tried to find ways around these rules but they often ended up in court and would lose the case. Schools that were not large enough to segregate would be closed down because school boards could not stand the thought of white children and black children going to school together. If a district was determined to have segregated schools, they would close the public schools and private schools that required a tuition payment would be the only option in the area. This prevented not only many poor African American students from attending school but also poor white students. This decision not only divided students by race but then divided all students by socioeconomic status.
In Kansas, an 1870 bill was defeated that would have required racially separate schools. Sponsors of the bill said the only way to ensure African American students received a quality education was to create separate schools for only African American students. This was the same rationalization used in the twentieth century advocating against desegregation of all public facilities. There was a fear that integration meant that African Americans would not be treated fairly. The irony surrounding this argument is beyond words. Following the theme of irony, in 1874 Kansas passed a law that prevented discrimination on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
While the idea behind segregating schools was to create an equal learning opportunity for all students, that certainly wasn’t the case. An educator values the environment that students are placed in to learn. Oftentimes, they refer to the environment as a third teacher. Schools that were solely for African American students were often referred to as, “unsanitary, inconvenient, and undesirable·a veritable cesspool.” This created poor learning conditions which led to poor student achievement. Even though these students were able to attend school, they were still being divided in quality of education compared to their white counterpart.
Prior to the Brown case, in 1940 another sizeable case arose in Topeka. It is known as the Graham case. The Graham case came in response to Kansas legislators attempt to implement segregation into all schools across the state. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) involved itself in the case but, it was tough. The association experienced an interesting division. One side advocated for African American teachers, administrators, and their jobs. This side closely aligned with the white community but for different reasons. The NAACP was concerned with keeping jobs for African Americans while the white community was concerned with keeping the racial status quo. The other side was anxious to disband segregation. This group involved not only African Americans but also white community members. Even though the NAACP was sharply divided, there was unification in the community on each side of the issue between both races. “The 1940 Graham case was the last time the NAACP had involved itself in school desegregation, it almost self-destructed.” The tensions found prior to Brown created a division within one of the strongest civil rights advocate groups in the United States.
Following this division, one side prevailed throughout the desegregation era. The side orientated more towards desegregation and civil rights prevailed and remained in power within the group. A division still remained for many years even though it was not obvious to the public eye.
Following the Graham case, the superintendent of Topeka schools, Dr. Stout, was replaced. Dr. Stout was seen as taking a middle of the road approach with segregation which didn’t sit well with many white citizens in Kansas. He was replaced by Dr. Kenneth McFarland. McFarland took a very black and white stance on things. He believed in maintaining segregation and even expanding it to wherever else possible. He is quoted saying, “separate schools are here to stay.” Throughout his time in power he gathered more and more momentum in favor of maintaining segregation. He backed his stance by saying, “·it’s the place of the public school system to dictate the social customs of the people who support the public school system.” McFarland was working with an all white school board but, not all of them were against desegregation. In fact, in Van Delinder’s article she says the school board probably would have allowed desegregation if the superintendent were not so against it.
Education is the foundation of our society. If students in the United States are not provided with a quality education they will not become productive citizens in society. McFarland’s stance on segregated schools prevented a large amount of students from receiving the quality of education they deserved. It was a choice that not only hurt the students but the nation as a whole. Access to a quality primary and secondary education is a fundamental right for all students.
In 1900 there were 424,422 white teachers and 21,267 black teachers. The white teachers were concentrated mainly in the North while the black teachers were concentrated mainly in the South. Black teachers were only able to teach in the black schools. Because of this there was a shortage in the number of teachers to teach in black schools. White teachers on average made a salary of $833 and their classes consisted of 15 students. African American teachers made an annual salary of $510 and they often had 30 students in their classes.
While African American teachers still had a college education, it wasn’t up to the same standard as a while college student’s education. In the south following the Great Depression African American colleges took a large hit. Their funding was cut and the quality of education fell with that funding. African American teachers started in poor elementary schools, moved to poor middle schools, and graduated from poor high schools. “In 1930 15% of African American adults had no formal schooling and 48% had never gone beyond the fifth grade.”
Segregation was found primarily in the elementary level schools. Educators know and understand that children at that age, are not concerned with the color of a person’s skin. They are influenced by people around them; their parents and teachers mainly. This ties back to the idea of the environment as a third teacher. One experiment in particular showed what can happen when students are divided and told that one group is superior to the other.
In 1968 an experiment was done by a teacher the day after Martin Luther King Jr. died. A third grade teacher divided her students based upon eye color. One group was blue eyed and the other was brown eyed. The first day she treated the blue eyed students very well and the brown eyed students very poorly. “This is a fact; blue eyed people are smarter than brown eyed people.” The next day, the roles switched. Jane Elliot, the teacher is quoted as saying, “We had talked about racism since the beginning of the year. I watched wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating third graders.” At the end of the experiment the children were very frustrated. By starting with the elementary students the people that believed in segregation were laying a framework for generations to come. Children that young are susceptible to socialization practices all around them. They would not fight what their teachers or parents were saying or doing. Whereas at the high school level the students may be more prone to ask questions about what was going on around them. Segregation of school children created a concrete division in community for years to come.
At this point in time the NAACP was still rather divided into the two factions formed in 1940. Communities were mainly split between black and white. Schools that were able to segregate did. There was no unification between all people. The state of Kansas and the United States as a whole was lacking an identity.
The year is 1953. Three cases have been winding their way through the circuit courts and they all end up back at the Supreme Court after being there once before. Each case has something to do with integration of public schools. The court was rather quiet on May 17,1954. People had been waiting for a decision on the Brown v. Board case for months. Suddenly, word came that Chief Justice Earl Warren was going to give a judgment and opinion on the case of Brown v. Board of Education. People flooded the court room in order to hear what he had to say. “We conclude-unanimously-that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” While the court realized that segregation was not beneficial to the learning experience of children, they failed to lay out a solid plan for integrating schools.
“School authorities have the primary responsibility for evaluating, assessing, and solving this problem.” This line out of the Supreme Court opinion is the closest thing to a plan for eradicating segregation. Basically, if things weren’t moving along, the government would step in and start looking at the location of the school, administration, and possible transportation issues students may be having. Since there was no plan presented in the Supreme Court ruling, school districts took their time desegregating schools. South Carolina and Georgia immediately announced plans to abolish public schools since segregation was banned.
As stated earlier, this case was not expected to gain as much attention as it did. Kansas was not the stereotypical southern state in the early 1900s. What made this case so big was its topic. Race relations were a very hot topic during this time and the last case that had been ruled on by a high court was the Dred Scott case of 1857. The court had actually ruled against Dred Scott and would not grant him citizenship as a free man. It had been almost one hundred years since the United States Supreme Court had ruled on a racial relations case. Another added surprise factor is that the case was ruled on unanimously. The New York Times states, “there had been reports that the court was sharply divided and might not be able to get an agreement this term.”
This court ruling was not only a victory for African Americans but for students and educators across the country. The supreme court validated the importance of public education in creating productive citizens. “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments·compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education in our democratic society. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.” This statement is a statement of unification. The Supreme Court wanted to create equal opportunities for all children in the United States. Chief Justice Earl Warren was responsible for reading the opinion and he added, “In these days it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” With states like South Carolina and Georgia threatening to pull their public schools following integration, the right to education was threatened further.
When the lawyer of the NAACP was asked just how he thought they would integrate the schools he replied, “put the dumb colored children in with the dumb white children, and put the smart colored children with the smart white children – that is no problem.” This ties back to the fundamental issue with the Brown decision, there was no plan. Brown was meant to create an equal education opportunity for all students but failed to say how that equal opportunity would be created. By splitting children by smart and dumb another division is formed. The African American children had been going to schools that were far less capable than their white counterparts to offer a quality education. If students were to be separated by intelligence, nothing would change.
Thurgood Marshall is the lawyer from the NAACP that argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court. Marshall was a well known lawyer. He had often argued cases for the NAACP. He was not only interested in civil rights for African Americans. In Juan William’s book on Marshall he says, “his great achievement was to expand rights for individual Americans. But he especially succeeded in creating new protections under law for America’s women, children, prisoners, homeless, minorities, and immigrants.” Marshall showed a genuine concern for all people of the United States. He is often overshadowed by two other men, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Both of these men were on the far sides of the spectrum when it came to the civil rights movement. King was very passive and Malcolm X was rather violent. Marshall served as the middle path and therefore aided in unifying the African American community through the civil rights era.
Marshall was very optimistic following the Supreme Court decision on Brown V. Board of Education. An article published by the New York Times following the decision touched on Marshall’s feelings towards the South and the decision reached. “Thurgood Marshall··predicted that there would be no disorder and no organized resistance to the Supreme Court’s dictum. He said that the people of the South, the region most heavily affected, were law-abiding and would not ‘resist the Supreme Court.'” Marshall had sincere hope in the people of the South. Marshall went on to be the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. Although he may be over shadowed, he laid groundwork for equal protection for many people in the United States. He truly worked to unify the United States as a whole.
Marshall’s hope that the change from segregated schools to desegregated schools could take place without trauma was shattered. As soon as the decision was handed down, “the South embarked on a campaign of massive resistance” according to the New York Times. The governor of South Carolina, James Byrnes, reacted to the decision by saying, “I urge all of our people, white and colored, to exercise restraint and preserve order.” He was encouraging everyone to remain calm and stand unified because South Carolina had until October to present arguments to the court regarding their case surrounding school desegregation.
The governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge, presented a different front. He repeatedly stated, “will never be mixed schools while I am governor·.school integration would lead to bloodshed.” Governor Talmadge was in favor of maintaining a divided state and nation. As time passed he talked more and more about repealing the decision and he never followed through with his promise to abolish public schools following the repeal of segregation laws.
Fast forward to 2014. The current president of the United States and his wife are both black. Civil rights is still a hot topic not just for African Americans but also for women and immigrants. The public school system is large and flourishing. Yet one thing remains similar to the schools in 1954, they are segregated. This isn’t intentional segregation; it’s not mandated by a law at the local or national level. This racial segregation has happened naturally over the years.
The First Lady, Michelle Obama, spoke at a high school graduation in Topeka, Kansas. 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision. She used the platform as more of a political soapbox. She is quoted saying, “many young people are going to schools with kids who look just like them.” She followed that up with, “many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools that are less diverse.” In fact, in Kansas there was a lawsuit between school districts and the state. The school districts are arguing that, “financing for schools is inadequate and is disproportionately hurting schools in low-income, minority districts.”
While Brown v. Board of Education was aimed at creating an equal educational opportunity for all students regardless of color by creating integrated schools, it did not live up to its potential. Through flaws in the decision itself, to no plan being laid out to strong resistance from southern governments, very little progress has been made. Throughout the years the United States has slipped back into allowing racially segregated schools. This issue is one that is still being argued today and the decision of Brown v. Board of Education will forever be remembered as a landmark case for the rights of African American students in the United States.
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