Have We Given Up on an Integrated Society?

May 17, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — A photograph from the civil-rights movement haunts me. Elizabeth Eckford, a black high school student wearing a crisply ironed dress, picks her way through an angry white mob in 1957. She meets the crowd alone because she was accidentally separated from the others in the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

One person stands out in the mob. Directly behind Elizabeth Eckford is a white student, her face contorted with hatred and spewing venom -- a human version of the snarling police dogs that often confronted civil-rights activists. Her name is Hazel Bryant.

I often wonder about Hazel Bryant. What became of her? Did her attitudes ever change, or will she take her bigotry to her grave? I ask these questions because I know that there but for the grace of God go I. At one time in my life I could easily have taken her place, and when my Mississippi grade school was finally integrated in 1970, I'm sure I showed Hazel Bryant's face to many of my African-American classmates. But for me, thankfully, something changed.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the end of legal segregation in America. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that ''in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.''

Brown specifically overturned the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed segregated public facilities as long as they were allegedly equal for both whites and blacks. Yet the reality was that despite the ''separate but equal'' doctrine, government services for blacks were hardly ever equal to those for whites.

In fact, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People developed a legal strategy for challenging segregation that began by enforcing ''separate but equal.'' The NAACP realized that truly equal segregated facilities would be far more costly to society than integrated ones. Its Legal Defense Fund, headed by Thurgood Marshall, won several cases in which blacks were admitted to all-white graduate schools because the black schools were inferior and could not be made equal. The next step was challenging segregated elementary and secondary schools.

That step was taken in Brown. Wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren for the unanimous court: ''To separate [school children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.''

This sentence directly contradicted the court's previous holding in Plessy. To Homer Plessy's argument that Louisiana's segregation laws imposed a ''badge of inferiority'' on blacks, the court replied: ''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.'' In a famous dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan declared: ''Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.''

Of course segregation did not end immediately after Brown. The Supreme Court held hearings on how best to implement its decision and in 1955 declared that desegregation should be carried out ''with all deliberate speed.'' Unfortunately, many school districts were more deliberate than speedy. In a 1969 case involving the Mississippi schools, the court finally declared that ''all deliberate speed'' had come to an end and that public schools should be integrated ''at once.'' Only then was my grade school desegregated.

Today, 40 years after Brown, there is new evidence that America's public school system is becoming increasingly segregated. According to the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, the percentage of African-Americans attending predominantly minority schools in 1991-92 (66 percent) is the highest since 1968-69 (77 percent). Indeed, Maryland ranks just above Mississippi in the top ten most segregated states, with 37 percent of its black students attending schools with 90 to 100 percent minority enrollment.

This is discouraging news. Segregation by law has been replaced with segregation by housing patterns. And most courts have abandoned busing as a means to achieve school integration. The result is that a new generation of American children are being reared in segregated schools. A new generation of potential Hazel Bryants.

My racial prejudices changed because, at a critical age, I was exposed to black people on a day-to-day basis in my school. Nowhere else did this opportunity exist. The same is true for today's children. If we give up on integrated schools, haven't we in fact given up on an integrated society? Brown was a beginning; we can't afford to let it be the end. Just look at Hazel Bryant's face.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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