FEATURE

BROWN V. BOARD: A New Milestone Decade

Can Brown's anniversary reawaken the spirit of common cause that fueled the Civil Rights Movement?

"(Brown) embodies the best of our hopes and ideals. It resonates with our best selves and our highest and most honorable callings. It springs from our bedrock national commitment to freedom, justice and equality. In a sense, Brown is a metaphor for the American dream." 

—From Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents, by Waldo E. Martin Jr. 

On May 17, 1954, the world changed. The unanimous declaration by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that "separate" is "inherently unequal" became the legal cornerstone of efforts to dismantle racial segregation, not only in public schools, but in public accommodations, the workplace, housing and the voting booth.

Brown's reverberations were not limited to the law. The decision empowered those who had been second-class citizens and set the stage for an unparalleled decade of sweeping social, political and economic change.

From 1954 to 1964 the journey toward racial justice was relentless. Each year of that decade produced milestone events in the journey.

This "Milestone Decade," culminating with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was fueled by a spirit of common cause and common sacrifice among diverse groups and individuals in communities across the country.

Blacks and Whites, especially young people, marched together — and died together — for the cause of justice. Their sacrifices inspired others — groups like the farm workers led by Cesar Chavez — to launch additional quests for freedom.

Unfortunately, the journey toward justice has not reached its ultimate destination.

Today, we confront persistent racial and ethnic disparities in education and economic opportunity as well as deep racial and ethnic divisions. In too many places, our schools are still largely separate and unequal.

The 50th anniversary of Brown presents a unique opportunity to launch "A New Milestone Decade," reawakening the spirit of common cause and common sacrifice.

Imagine the public attention we could spark if we took advantage of the many 50th anniversary milestones that will occur from 2004 to 2014 to re-energize the journey toward justice for all.

Imagine the new allies we could enlist in a determined effort to create a society of truly equal opportunity in an era of changing demographics, technological revolution and globalization.

Imagine the power we could generate if we put aside turf wars and political partisanship and invited all fair-minded Americans to join a journey toward justice during "A New Milestone Decade."

In communities across the country, dedicated organizations and individuals, often in isolation, work to build a more inclusive and just society.

Creating "A New Milestone Decade" can unite us all in common cause, widening our circle of allies and building relentless momentum for completing the journey begun a half century ago.

Photograph by Dan Budnik/Woodfin Camp/Time-Life Pictures

Three ways to encourage students to continue the struggle for equality and justice in the U.S.

1. Students will find a variety of "milestones" listed below. Ask students to create timelines of their own lives for the years 2005-2014. What goals do they have for each of those years? How does attainment of those goals relate to the civil rights milestones?
 

2. Write essays or letters describing actions today's students can take to honor our nation's civil rights history and to continue the journey toward a more just and integrated America.
 

3. Invite speakers from local civil rights organizations to visit your classroom and describe the "persistent racial and ethnic disparities in education and economic opportunity as well as deep racial and ethnic divisions" that Wenger refers to in his essay.

Milestones to Remember

In 2005, will you remember ...

The determination of Rosa Parks who, in 1955, refused to move from her bus seat? Will you remember the conviction of the black residents of Montgomery, Ala., who boycotted city buses and walked and carpooled to work for 381 days, demanding the end of segregated busing in the city and elsewhere?

 

In 2006, will you remember ...

The voice of the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared in 1956's Browder vs. Gayle that Mrs. Parks and Montgomery's boycotters were right — that bus segregation laws defied our Constitution's principles of equality and freedom?

 

In 2007, will you remember ...

The bravery and fear of nine black school children who integrated Little Rock's Central High School in 1957, encountering white rage so hot that federalized troops had to attend school, too?

 

In 2008, will you remember ...

The hope of 10,000 students who participated in the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools?

 

In 2009, will you remember ...

The groundswell of youth — 25,000 strong — who joined the second Youth March for Integrated Schools in 1959?

 

In 2010, will you remember ...

The defiance of North Carolina college students who in 1960 began sit-ins at Whites-only lunch counters, prompting a nation to confront segregation in public facilities?

 

In 2011, will you remember ...

The blood spilled by Freedom Riders — black, white and brown, Christian and Jew, from across the U.S. — who dared to travel the South in 1961 in integrated buses and were met all too often by violence?

Will you remember Freedom Rider Walter Bergman, beaten so badly by a white mob in Anniston, Ala., that he suffered a stroke and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair?

 

In 2012, will you remember ...

The victims of a 1962 riot at the University of Mississippi, which was spawned by violent white resistance to the enrollment of James Meredith, a black student? Will you remember the 28 federal marshals who were shot, the 130 people injured and the death of European reporter Paul Guilhard, killed by a mob's rage?

Will you remember that in 1962, Cesar Chavez created the United Farm Workers Association to confront the plight of California's Latino migrant farm workers — and reminded us all that political and economic freedom transcends the black/white paradigm?

 

In 2013, will you remember ...

The 250,000 people who traveled from across our great nation to converge at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? Will you take the time to read the entire "I Have a Dream" speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered that day?

 

In 2014, will you remember ...

Our nation ratified the 24th Amendment in 1964 and spoke to equality: "In the United States of America, in our democracy, you don't have to pay to vote"?

Will you remember that in 1964 Patsy Mink became the first Asian American woman elected to the U.S. Congress — a reminder that great Americans come from all ethnicities and races?

Will you remember that in 1964 the Rev. Bruce Klunder was killed — run over by a bulldozer — protesting at a construction site for a new segregated school in Ohio? Will you remember the struggle for equal education exists in every region of our great nation?

Will you remember the efforts of the 1,000 young volunteers during 1964's Freedom Summer to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote? Will you remember that their work was not easy — that three civil rights workers were murdered that summer, that dozens of volunteers were beaten, 37 black churches bombed and 30 homes burned?

Will you remember that, finally, after centuries of endurance by people of color, after a decade of organized, multiracial struggle and sacrifice, the U.S. Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment?

 

And Never Forget...

The struggle for justice, equality and freedom did not end in 1964.