Fifty Years of Progress

On May 17, 1954, neither the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, nor anyone else, could have predicted that 50 years later both the U.S. secretary of state and the president’s national security advisor would be African-Americans. But on that Monday morning, the court announced its decision in a case whose name became a symbol for a new era in race relations among Americans—50 years of social change sweeping enough to be called a peaceful revolution.

While African-Americans in the courtroom that day listened with tears in their eyes, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the court’s unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a case dealing with legally imposed racial segregation in public schools. With a simple but massive conclusion—“Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—the court declared unconstitutional the biracial public school systems that then existed in 17 states, most of them in the South, and the District of Columbia.

Brown v. Board was not the first school desegregation case, and its effects may not be accounted as far-reaching as those of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Brown was a momentous symbol, however, because it powerfully asserted the equality of all Americans under the law.

The 50th anniversary of Brown comes at a time when the Republic needs some cheering up. In this 2004 spring of discontent, the invasion of Iraq has not only turned into a disaster; it has earned the United States worldwide disfavor, ranging from the skepticism of European allies to the fierce hatred of the Arab nations. It would be a relief if Americans could point right now to some national achievement worth celebrating. The progress made since 1954 in the integration not just of public education but of U.S. culture as a whole is just such an accomplishment.

Of course, Brown did not immediately transform the cultural landscape any more than Gutenberg’s printing press immediately transformed European civilization. For a decade desegregation made no headway in the Deep South. The 1964 Civil Rights Act dissolved this resistance. By 1974, public education was actually more integrated in the South than in the North, where controversies about busing shifted school integration conflicts to the big cities.

It cannot be said that the color bar has been eliminated, but at least it has been weakened. No one now argues, as people did in 1954, that biracialism expresses the wishes of both races or is a necessary pillar of public tranquility. To mark Brown’s jubilee year, the U.S. Census Bureau notes that in 1950 the percentage of African-Americans who were high school graduates was 13.7; the comparable figure for 2000 was 79. Thousands of African-Americans hold public office or are distinguished figures in the professions and the arts, in business, entertainment and sports.

All the same, if the Brown anniversary is ground for measured congratulations, it is not ground for complacency. In big cities, neighborhood schools remain segregated because of housing patterns. The economic gap between whites and blacks has narrowed, but in 2000 the poverty rate for blacks was still three times the rate for whites. Moreover, bias has found new targets in Muslims, Latinos and Asians.

More than 50 years ago, Ralph McGill, editor of The Atlanta Constitution pointed out that the Christian churches were a principal force opposing segregation. The black Baptist pastors were the heroic leaders in this movement. In deference to local laws and customs, there were in 1954 segregated Catholic parishes in the South. But in those 17 states that maintained biracial public school systems, there were Catholic bishops who were ahead of the Supreme Court. In St. Louis, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph E. Ritter integrated all schools and churches in 1947. In Washington, D.C., Cardinal Patrick A. O’Boyle began school integration in 1949. In New Orleans, Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel started desegregating parish activities in 1953. Four years later, the New Orleans Association of Catholic Laymen complained to Pope Pius XII that their archbishop was teaching the “strange new doctrine” that racial segregation is wrong.

That story has a footnote. In New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African-American child to enroll in what had been an all-white public elementary school in the Deep South. Escorted by police, she made her way through a jeering crowd. Twenty-two years later, however, she was sending her own children to New Orleans Catholic schools, because, she said, they received a better education there.

Of course this is only one specific case, but it points to a general truth. Implementation of Brown’s ideal of an integrated American society has been and must continue to be the work of all responsible citizens and all their legitimate agencies, private as well as public.

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