Sixty Years After Brown:
Is This the Education System for Which They Fought?
In the Native American communities, the Clan Mothers are charged with making decisions that consider seven generations in the future. I am not sure if Oliver Brown, the father of Linda Carol Brown and her sister, Terry Lynn even knew about this cultural tradition when he decided to sue the Topeka Board of Education. I do believe, however, that Oliver Brown, along with Thurgood Marshall and Chief Justice Warren believed that collectively they were eradicating the injustices of the past regarding the children of chattel slaves that would last through the generations. In 2014, sixty years the phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” has faced many roadblocks, which in reality thwarted the progress of equal protection under the law for African Americans and other disenfranchised groups.
Carol Brown was seven years old when she had to walk 20 blocks each day through the Rock Island Railroad Switchyard to the closest of four elementary schools in Topeka, Kansas for African American students. Her father, Oliver Brown, felt that this journey placed her life in jeopardy and had her apply to the Sumner School, which was reserved for whites. When her admission was denied, he sought the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Attorney Thurgood Marshall won the case on behalf of Carol and other students in Kansas, South Carolina, and Delaware. The cases became known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown and established for America that segregation was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Sixty years after this landmark decision, we are forced to reckon with the realities of our current education system. While progress has been made in many areas of education, disparities among the races still exist. Across America, particularly in the inner city, children still attend their neighborhood schools. A closer look into these predominantly minority districts solidifies the fact that the American School System has made little progress in integrating these schools.
In addition, district data reveals that large minority areas still have the least prepared teachers, textbooks remain outdated, and technology is often discarded in the back of a classroom. Students attending these schools are not able to successfully compete with children whose districts and parents invest in the future achievement of their children. Most educators now consider this phenomenon to be the “achievement gap.” I see it as the “access gap.” Do all children have equal access and ability to have an equal education? This question was at the heart of Brown, and we still struggle today to see the progress that has been sustainable.
America has made progress in some areas, but we just are not there yet. Deliberate speed has slowed to a snails pace and many children for whom the law was intended receive an inferior education, have overrepresentation into special education, are culturally isolated, must attend separate and unequal schools, are housed in dropout factories and end up in the cradle to prison pipeline. This is neither the education system envisioned in Brown, nor is it one that should remain unchallenged. For the seven generations to come, what kind education system will we leave for them?
Dr. Shelia Evans-Tranumn is an Educational Consultant and former Associate Commissioner of Education for New York State.