President teaches about Brown decision

May 18, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

BELTSVILLE -- Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision yesterday, President Clinton visited a middle school named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., where Mr. Clinton played the roles of teacher and mentor.

"We are very fortunate in this country today that 40 years ago every justice on the Supreme Court said 'separate but equal' educational facilities are wrong," the president told 700 seventh- and eighth-graders. "We are a better people because of that, and you all wouldn't be here together . . . if that hadn't

happened."

The student body is 48 percent black, 43 percent white, 8 percent Asian, with a smattering of students of other ethnic origins, said Principal Bette Lewis. Located in Prince George's County, just outside the Washington Beltway, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School has been selected as a presidential "blue ribbon" school on the basis of excellence and is a magnet school that stresses classical education and advanced math.

The president rejected as "cynical" the views of those who say that because there is racism, violence and unfairness, America is not any better off and that integration was not a noble goal.

"That's flat wrong," the president said. "This is a much better country today because of Brown vs. Board of Education. . . . What we should say is, we are going to build on the things which have gone before that are good." Before his speech, Mr. Clinton lTC taught one class that the lives of the students at that very school were affected by the Brown decision.

On the blackboard was a list of names, including that of Earl Warren, chief justice in 1954, and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who argued the case and later became a Supreme Court justice.

Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who resisted integration, was listed. So was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president who ordered federal troops to help integrate Central High School in Little Rock.

Mr. Clinton brought along Ernest Green, one of the nine black students who had been escorted into Central. Perhaps because they had just seen a movie of the case -- prominently featuring a young Ernie Green -- and perhaps because Mr. Green was so forceful, he upstaged the president a bit.

"Mr. Green, how did you feel the first time, the first day you went to Central High School?" one asked.

One student asked a sensitive question of both Ernie Green and the president: "While the integration was going on, did you ever feel like taking the law into your own hands and doing something drastic?"

Mr. Green told the students that his side won because it had eschewed violence.

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