08/08/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

No Easy Victories

Co-authored by John Brittain

In May, we honored the intellect and dedication of civil rights advocates who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case and persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 to order the desegregation of American public schools.

What many people don't realize, however, is that Brown was rooted in a strategy that dates back to the 1930s -- and still inspires civil rights advocates today.

Now, as then, supporters recognize that education is the most precious of the civil rights because it is the right from which all others flow. Education enables people to get good jobs and decent housing, to become informed voters -- in short, to lead better, richer lives.

Little wonder, then, that today's civil rights advocates continue to fight -- in classrooms and the justice system as well as the court of public opinion -- for the right of every child to get a good education, regardless of race or personal background.

The alternative simply is too costly -- for families as well as our society.

Higher education levels mean higher incomes: In 2009, people with professional degrees earned six times as much as those who did not graduate high school. Even during the recent recession, higher education levels corresponded to lower unemployment rates (Steven Strauss, The Huffington Post, 2011.) And the link between education attainment and incarceration is undeniable: One of every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one of every 35 with a high school diploma.

Race only raises the ante. In 2012, black students had a 69 percent graduation rate; Hispanics, 73 percent; whites, 86 percent and Asians, 88 percent. About one in four young African-American male dropouts is in a criminal-justice institution. And in July, the black unemployment rate was 11.4 percent, more than double that of whites.

Efforts to raise the bar, especially for boys and young men, are under way. Concerned that boys lag achievement in virtually every subject, and that one-third of boys are raised in homes without fathers, activists have called for a White House Council on Boys to Men to set best practices. President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative is raising public and private money to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, through such milestones as preschool, early reading success and high school and college preparation for successful careers.

Yet with that said, the urgency to address inequitable family circumstances is irrefutable. As Kimberle Williams Crenshaw has written in a recent opinion piece, the White House also must recognize that "...the conditions in which marginalized communities of color must live..." are central to ameliorating social injustice.

Today's leaders follow a path lain not only by Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who successfully argued Brown and went on to become a Supreme Court justice, but also by such advocates as Charles Hamilton Houston, Marshall's mentor and his teacher at Howard University Law School during the 1930s. Among other things, the pair investigated the scandalous conditions of schools attended by black children at the invitation of the NAACP. They also championed the cause of black students who were denied entry to college or law school due to discrimination ("Root and Branch, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and the Struggle to End Segregation," Rawn James Jr., 2010.)

Marshall, Houston and their supporters had no shortage of dragons to slay in the 1930s. A federal strategy to deter lynchings, especially in the South, demanded their attention as well. Yet ending discrimination in education became their focus because they knew a good education was critical to success across the board.

They clearly understood, as our nation was soon to discover, that those who fight for the civil rights of Americans are the ones waging the war that could end all wars. A nation that strengthens its citizens is the nation that then can help shape human justice throughout the world.

Today the challenge of de facto segregation in schools -- not only by race, but also by poverty concentration, native language and disability -- requires coordinated local, state and federal action. Segregated schools will never deliver on the promise of social equality and equal opportunity that is the cornerstone of our country. It is in the self-interest of all citizens to learn together, for the rest of their lives.

"Tell no lies and claim no easy victories," said Amilar Cabral, the late African revolutionary who led Guinea-Bissau to independence during the 1960s. Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and every other American who has fought for equal access to education for all children know his creed.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.

John C. Brittain is a professor and civil rights lawyer at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.