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Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education - The Past, The Present & The Future

Amber Racine on 5/20/2014

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Amber Racine is an attorney at Raynes McCarty where she represents catastrophically injured plaintiffs in product liability, premises liability and general negligence actions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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Separate but equal. Prior to 1954, this was the fiction that our country believed. In 1896, the Supreme Court, in deciding Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld a Louisiana statute which required whites and blacks to ride in separate railroad cars (just one example of the "separate but equal" mindset). The Court's opinion stated:

The underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument…consist[s] in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it…[t]he argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition.

For more than fifty years, America held tight to the idea that the legislatively-supported segregation had no hand in the inferior treatment, the substandard opportunities and the plain discrimination that African-Americans faced. In truth, segregation prevented African-Americans from gaining any semblance of equality and maintained the status quo of open, free racism and prejudice. Early in the 1950s, the wheels of change began to turn.

In 1951, Kansas parents, supported by the NAACP, attempted to enroll their twenty children in the closest integrated neighborhood schools. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools - some miles away from the families' homes. Through the denial of admission, the case of Oliver Brown, et al. v. The Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas was born. Eventually, several cases involving the disparities and inferiorities in segregated schools from around the country were consolidated for oral argument before the Supreme Court.1

On May 17, 1954, America took a huge step towards equality when the Supreme Court held that segregation was unconstitutional, stressing the point that the practice in and of itself harmed black students psychologically and socially:

Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does...Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn….We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

This year, we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of that first step. We honor the NAACP attorneys who skillfully battled years of segregationist precedent; we applaud the parents who were courageous enough to put their lives on the line to gain more opportunities for the children and for children around the nation; and we commend the Justices of the Supreme Court for issuing a unanimous decision which underscored the significance of the change in the law. During Law Week, the Barristers' Association and the Philadelphia Bar Association joined forces to celebrate this symbol that Brown v. Board is today. The film, "Remembering the Legacy: Brown v. Board of Education - 60 Years Later", which presents stories of local attorneys and judges impacted by the Brown v. Board decision is the result of that partnership. Without prompting, many participants discussed the fact that the true ideal of Brown had not yet been realized; that Brown v. Board was a beginning and the ending is still yet to come.

Since 1954, there have been more steps forward: Brown II (a 1955 Supreme Court cases where the Justices ordered the district courts to implement desegregation "with all deliberate speed"); Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (a 1964 Supreme Court case which upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning racial discrimination in public places); and Brown III (a 1978 case filed in Topeka's district court which eventually resulted in the Topeka schools developing a plan to meet court standards of racial balance by 1998). But, as we all know, the journey is not yet complete. Schools across the country are faced with significant obstacles and classes in many areas often resemble the pre-Brown days of segregation. Spending disparities between public schools in suburban areas and cities continue to grow. Locally, Philadelphia schools struggle with ongoing budget shortfalls, increased violence and high school graduation rates hovering around 60%. The journey continues, because one fact remains true whether it is 1954, 2014 or 2074 - education is the one great equalizer. We must take action to ensure that all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status have the access and opportunity to succeed.

The wheels that began turning in the 1950s cannot stop, but must continue until the destination - the true equality sought by the attorneys, families and even the unanimous Supreme Court in 1954 - is reached. And so, we recognize the 60th Anniversary of the Brown decision by celebrating the past, encouraging action in the present and holding out hope for the future.

1Briggs v. Elliott, South Carolina case originally filed in 1950; Brown v. Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas case originally filed 1951; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia case also filed in 1951; and Gebhart v. Belton, filed in Delaware in 1952 - the only case where discrimination was held to be unconstitutional at the lower court level. See also Bolling v. Sharpe, a related case originally filed in Washington D.C. and separately heard by the Supreme Court for decision as to whether segregation violated the due process clause of the 5th Amendment.

Amber Racine is an attorney at Raynes McCarty where she represents catastrophically injured plaintiffs in product liability, premises liability and general negligence actions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Ms. Racine is also president of The Barristers' Association of Philadelphia. She can be reached at amracine@raynesmccarty.com.

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