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The Anniversary of the Brown Decision

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This past week we quietly celebrated a historic anniversary. Sixty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, one of the most important decisions issued by the Court in the history of the country. There, the Court struck down state laws that mandated racial segregation in public schools, stating clearly that racially segregated educational facilities are inherently unequal. The Brown decision soon was followed by a series of Supreme Court cases invalidating state laws that required racial segregation in other contexts, such as parks, buses, public golf courses, and beaches.

The legacy of Brown, however, extended well beyond public education or the specifics of any one of these other cases. Prior to the Brown decision, protection of civil rights was largely left to the states, which resulted in wide variation depending on the specific state. Brown paved the way for placing civil rights on the national agenda and in this respect led to the civil rights movement. After the Brown decision, protection of the promise of equality became a national issue.

Southern resistance to desegregation forced the federal government to use its power to enforce the mandate of desegregation. President Eisenhower eventually sent federal paratroopers to Arkansas to ensure the admission of young black children to Little Rock Central High School. So too, President Kennedy provided federal protection for the freedom riders who traveled throughout the South to focus national attention on continuing racial segregation. Ten years after the decision, he sent to Congress the bill that would become perhaps the most significant civil rights law ever to be enacted.

Brown also was significant because it thrust the federal courts into an active role in serving as a guardian of constitutional rights more generally. Federal courts became the forum for litigation related not only to the public schools but to a variety of constitutional matters such as conditions in prisons and mental institutions, reapportionment, gender equality, and privacy rights.

Today, some might question the effectiveness of the Brown case, pointing to the continued segregation that exists in many of our public schools, not directly as a result of state laws but rather as a result of housing and living patterns. To be sure, we still have work ahead of us if we are to reach the dream of the Brown decision. With respect to equal educational opportunities, colleges and universities must play a vital role in ensuring that a college education is accessible and that students understand the strength that lies in settings rich in diversity.

On a more general level, it is clear that 60 years ago the Court set into motion a movement that forever changed the landscape of our country.