Sixty-five years ago today, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren declared that “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” in America’s public schools. Segregated schools were unconstitutional. Gone were the “inherently unequal” all-black schools and all-white schools. Or so we thought.
Below are photos from the Brown v. Board of Education era, but don’t mistake them for artifacts of a bygone time. The “growth of racial and economic segregation that began then has now continued for nearly three decades, placing the promise of Brown at grave risk,” researchers wrote in a recent UCLA Civil Rights Project report.
Brown may have dismantled the formal barriers between white and black students, but it has failed in its broader mission to integrate public schools.
The triumphal version of the Brown story tends to obscure the ways that school segregation has persisted, mutated, changed its name so as to slip by unnoticed. In the early years following the decision, white communities in the South resisted desegregation efforts. Prince Edward County in Virginia, the site of one of the five lawsuits that made up the Brown case, shut down its public schools to avoid integration. Private schools known as segregation academies popped up throughout the South. In Northern cities and beyond, de facto segregation raged on for years, as communities in Boston and elsewhere fought back against court-ordered desegregation efforts. It wasn’t until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Supreme Court decisions in the late 1960s and 1970s that the pace of desegregation sped up. Thanks to strong federal enforcement, progress, at last, could be made.
But that wouldn’t last. The Nixon administration rolled back federal enforcement of school desegregation efforts, and a series of key Supreme Court decisions, including a 2007 decision to toss out voluntary desegregation plans that took children’s race into account, limited the power of those orders. Courts released school districts from longstanding desegregation orders, ushering in an era of resegregation without the same sort of judicial and federal oversight seen after Brown.
On the 40th anniversary of the famous Supreme Court decision that effectively struck down the separation of kids by race in America’s schools, Linda Brown said she felt “disheartened” that the nation still talked about school segregation. As a third-grader, Brown had sought to enroll at Sumner School in Topeka; she was denied, setting off the legal fight that culminated in the Supreme Court case. “But the struggle has to continue,” Brown told the Washington Post in 1994. She died in March 2018, having lived long enough to see the cause evoked by her name become urgent anew.