Ago last Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled in...

FORTY YEARS

May 19, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

FORTY YEARS ago last Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that race-segregated education was unconstitutional.

The anniversary was widely celebrated and the decision generously praised. Not by me. I respect Brown, but I'm saving my party hat and noise-maker for a much, much more important civil rights anniversary party three weeks from now.

Here's why I say that:

In 1954 the South said to the Supreme Court, "Never!" It said, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!!" It said, "Impeach Earl Warren!!!"

That wasn't just the rednecks, Citizens' Councils and Kluxers, either. It wasn't even just the politicians, though even so normally responsible a senator as Georgia's Richard Russell denounced the court in inflammatory terms.

Some of the most respected and responsible private citizens of the South opposed the decision and its implications and lent aid and comfort to the resisters. Typical was the leader of the establishment bar in Richmond who announced that "the school decisions were wrongly decided," and added, "I am not in favor of and will never favor compulsory integration." That was future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell.

The result of this opposition at all levels of Southern society was that the South stayed segregated, separate and unequal.

In May of 1964, 10 full years after Brown, here is how much desegregation had been achieved:

In Lewis Powell's Virginia, 1.63 percent of black students were in schools with whites. In Dick Russell's Georgia, 0.052 percent. In the 11 states of the old Confederacy, only 1.18 percent of black students were in schools with whites.

So the reason I didn't get all that excited about Brown's 40th anniversary party is that the decision didn't really do anything.

But something was going on in the spring of 1964 that would soon have much greater impact, that would be a far more beneficial, liberating event for blacks in Southern schools and, indeed, in all of Southern life, than the Supreme Court's 1954 decision.

What was going on was the longest debate in congressional history. It was the debate on what was officially designated H.R. 7152, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It was omnibus legislation, covering not just education, though it also covered that, but also private businesses open to the public, like hotels and restaurants; public facilities like golf courses and libraries; and voting and employment. In 1964, LTC those things were as segregated as the schools in many Southern states.

Once this act went into effect, the South changed much, much more and in a relative short time than it had in the 10 years between the court's decision and passage of the act. I'll explain how and why the law was more effective than the decision in a 30th anniversary column three Thursdays from now.

June 9: Filibuster.

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