50 Years Later: A Promise Not Kept

Thurgood Marshall, center, chief legal counsel of the NAACP, is surrounded by students and their escort from Little Rock, Ark., as he sits on the steps of the Supreme Court Building in Washington in this Aug. 22, 1958 file photo, after he filed an appeal in the integration case of Little Rock's Central High School. The students are, from left: Melba Patillo, Jefferson Thomas, Gloria Ray, escort Daisy Bates, Marshall, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, and Elizabeth Eckford.
Fifty years to the day after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools, the Brown v. Board of Education decision stands as a paramount symbol of both the power and the limitations of the law. More than anything, it reminds us, to paraphrase President Eisenhower, that the justices may be able to change the law but they cannot change the hearts of men.

As a result of the Court's unanimous ruling in Brown, segregation no longer is the law of the land. But, in spite of the ruling, segregation still is a fact in America. It is an economic fact. It is a social fact. It is a fact in many of our public schools and neighborhoods.

Even though the odious legal doctrine of "separate but equal" was scrapped thanks to Brown, no one can dispute that we are still very much both a separate and an unequal society today. There is only so much that judges can do when there are strong political and social and religious forces arrayed against them.

The Brown decision changed America, all right, but nowhere near as much as most people would have thought back on May 17, 1954, when Chief Justice Earl Warren read the ruling aloud from the bench to a stunned crowd of reporters and lawyers.

The Court talked the talk that day, but judges and politicians and school administrators and others simply haven't walked the walk since. So while we rightfully commemorate Brown and what it stood for half a century ago, it's worth acknowledging that the ruling did not solve all of the problems of race and schooling that existed then and that it created new problems - for example, forced busing - that few could have imagined two generations ago.

There are plenty of reasons why the promise of Brown has gone significantly unfulfilled. First, the Warren Court itself is responsible, largely because of the compromise it offered to opponents of school integration.

Instead of ordering the public schools to be desegregated quickly, the Court, in its second Brown ruling which came in 1955, allowed local authorities to proceed with "all deliberate speed," a phrase that naturally encouraged integration foes to focus upon the "deliberate" and all but ignore the "speed" in creating racially-neutral classrooms. It thus took years and years and countless other legal battles to generate anything like the sort of equality contemplated by the original authors of Brown.

Once those authors were gone from the bench, and replaced in the main by much more conservative justices, the Supreme Court itself began to undercut the impact of Brown and its immediate successor cases.

As Richard Kluger illustrated in his masterful book about the school cases, "Simple Justice," the Brown decision didn't just come out of thin air. It followed a lineage of school cases that had come before the Court during World War II and that had gradually created the legal framework that made Brown possible.

That lineage continued for over a decade after Brown, too, culminating in 1969 with a ruling in a Mississippi school case in which the Court held "the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools."

But after that ruling, the justices began to place limitations on the theoretical scope of Brown. In 1973, the (Burger) Court refused to require equal per-pupil funding across Texas. In 1974, the Court refused to accept a Michigan school plan that would have integrated schools there by incorporating both Detroit and its suburbs into one plan.

By the next big school cases, in the early 1990s, the (Rehnquist) Court had turned even further to the right and its school cases showed it. In effect, in the name of "local control," the current court has allowed many school districts all across the country to slide back into de facto separate and unequal conditions.

In 1991, the Court permitted school officials in Oklahoma City to implement a plan that ended school busing and, as a practical matter therefore, integration itself. In 1992, the Court refused to require DeKalb County, Georgia to revise and renew its school integration plan to catch up with what Kluger called "massive demographic shifts" within the county; shifts that had created re-segregated conditions. And in 1995, the Court refused to continue to require Missouri to pay for certain remedial programs that alleviated some of the burdens of school segregation that still existed in that state 40 years after Brown.

In part as a result of those decisions, the New York Times reports, "more than 100 [school] districts have been released from desegregation orders" since 1990. And even voluntary school integration plans - ones that did not have to be enforced via federal court decree - are now in danger of becoming obsolete as a result of litigation, the Times reports.

Even though hundreds of other districts still remain under court supervision, and even though many students attend fairly integrated schools, the high tide of de jure school integration clearly has ebbed.

But it is not just the courts that have muddied the legacy and muted the promise of Brown. Politicians of all stripes have failed to courageously implement its vision. Citizens, black and white, have selfishly undercut its premise. Economic realities stunt its effect.

As Kluger writes in a new chapter to his book, there is a "dramatic distance traveled over the half-century since the Brown decision was announced and the long road still ahead before the United States can be said to have arrived at true racial equality. It is a road that some despair of ever ending, a mountaintop reachable only in dreams, so deep-seated is the virus of hatred and so low a priority have the white majority and its elected leaders assigned to the issue."

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court gave us a chance to consider what is possible in American life. It gave us an opportunity to embrace the better angels of our nature. The past fifty years, however, have shown us instead that what is possible often cannot be and that the most noble dreams and goals usually are destined to remain only so.

The Brown decision is one of the most important Supreme Court rulings of all time, therefore, not because of what it ultimately wrought but because of the fairness and equality and justice and - most of all, hope - it immediately suggested.

By Andrew Cohen