Still separate, still unequal 37 years after the Brown decision

Samuel L. Banks

May 15, 1991|By Samuel L. Banks

FRIDAY'S 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court's histori Brown decision, which declared racial segregation unconstitutional in the public schools, will be observed with very scant attention, hoopla or ceremonial proclamations and speeches.

As it does in 1991, the Brown decision in 1954 caused national ambivalence and apprehension. In fact, the decision reflected a kind of unsettling duality insofar as black and white citizens were concerned.

Blacks greeted the ruling, by and large, with jubilation and euphoria; whites, especially in the South, greeted it with brooding unease and incredulity. The violence, obfuscation, massive resistance and ingenious "freedom of choice" plans to minimize school desegregation would come after the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation must proceed with "all deliberate speed."

Baltimore actually had begun desegregation in 1952, two years before Brown, when 16 carefully chosen blacks were admitted to Poly in a move orchestrated by the city branch of the NAACP, led by Juanita Jackson Mitchell and Thurgood Marshall. (Marshall addressed the school board just before it voted.) The rationale was that there was no pre-engineering curriculum available in what was called the "Division of Colored Schools." The same school board, however, denied black admission to Western High School on the grounds that a program for academically able black girls was available at Douglass High School.

Two years later and almost immediately after the Brown decision -- a committee to study desegregation was appointed only three days after the ruling and the final vote was taken June 3 -- Baltimore became the nation's first legally segregated school system to comply with the high court's edict. With the exception of a vociferous group of parents and students at Southern High School, desegregation proceeded very smoothly, thanks in part to the even-handed management of Superintendent John Fischer.

But while it is true that official segregation ended in Baltimore and across the nation, separate and unequal education prevails 37 years later for black, Hispanic and native American children. Why? Because there is a national disinclination to support equity and excellence in all schools and because whites and blacks alike are fleeing the urban centers, leaving them without the funds needed to operate quality schools.

The Brown decision was both a blessing and a bane. It was a blessing because the official separation of schoolchildren came to a merciful end. But in the long run many blacks paid a price. Thirty-seven years later we see the "brain drain" of black students and teachers to predominantly white schools. We see the virtual elimination of black principals, except in urban schools.

Still, I believe the Brown decision of 1954 was just and proper in spite of the setbacks and difficulties of the present. It offered hope to blacks and other minorities across the nation. There remains, amid the bleakness, a basis for hope that equity and excellence in public education will become realities for all children.

Samuel L. Banks is director of instruction in Baltimore schools.

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