Effects of Brown decision now seem to be overrated

November 22, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

SIX MONTHS before the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision, observances commemorating the event are under way. Baltimore had two in as many days.

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the Black Jewish Forum of Baltimore -- better known as the BLEWS. The BLEWS put on a gala celebration dinner that honored former City Councilwoman Victorine Q. Adams. Also on the program was Baltimore attorney Larry Gibson giving a retrospective on how black and Jewish lawyers helped bring about changes in civil rights. State Sen. Lisa Gladden and Del. Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg, both of the 41st District recounted how the Brown decision affected their lives.

The next day, the University of Maryland Law School had its turn. Gibson was on a panel with Sherrilyn Ifill, who teaches with Gibson at the law school, and historians David Taft Terry and Bruce Thompson. Those four talked about how the 1936 Maryland case Pearson vs. Murray -- which resulted in Baltimore Judge Eugene O'Dunne ruling that the University of Maryland Law School had to admit Murray, an African-American -- influenced the Brown decision.

The UM Law School event was fittingly capped off with Judge Robert L. Carter's lecture after the panel discussion. Carter was an NAACP lawyer in 1954 who argued the Brown case, which was one of five school desegregation cases before the Supreme Court.

There was much reminiscing during the talks. At times you could almost feel the nostalgia wafting through the Forum catering hall -- site of the BLEWS gala -- and the ceremonial moot courtroom at the University of Maryland Law School. Karen Rothenberg, the dean of the law school, told those assembled that next year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown. No one thought to ask what, exactly, black folks should be celebrating.

Did the Brown decision do for blacks educationally all that the NAACP leaders hoped it would? Are black students in, say, Baltimore -- with our $52 million budget deficit and pitiful public schools -- better off now than they were in 1954? Is the Brown decision and its effects overrated?

The history indicates the answer is "yes." (Where's that danged Rush Limbaugh to use the word "overrated" when it's really needed?)

Four years before the Brown decision, NAACP lawyers convinced all nine Supreme Court justices that a black man named Sweatt had to be admitted to the University of Texas Law School, in spite of that state's plan to create an equal law school for blacks.

The UT Law School's faculty reputation, prestigious alumni, tradition and history, the justices said, precluded that possibility. Two years later, the Baltimore school board used pretty much the same reasoning in admitting the first black students to Polytechnic Institute, well before the Brown decision.

Still, the near-canonization of the Brown decision will continue apace for the next six months, while the toiling of those NAACP lawyers in important pre-Brown cases (McLaurin vs. Oklahoma State Board of Regents, Missouri ex rel. Gaines vs. Canada and Maryland's Pearson vs. Murray, to name a few) remain unnoticed.

But there were some positive effects of Brown. Gladden and Rosenberg alluded to some of them. It wasn't until after Brown that, in many parts of the country, white and black students finally sat in the same classrooms. That didn't happen for Gladden until she was in the fifth grade.

"While Brown was alive and well in 1975," she recalled, "it didn't exist in my life." Rosenberg had no black schoolmates when he attended Cross Country Elementary School and only a few at Pimlico Junior High. That would change when he entered City College in 1964, where he had a few blacks in his "A" course classes but many as teammates on the athletic field. (He may have had a few as classmates in a probability and statistics class. Rosenberg looks curiously like a guy of the same name who was in that class I took in my junior year.)

While the effects of Brown decision are overrated, we can't underrate the experiences of folks like Rosenberg and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a 1963 City College graduate who recently told the school's alumni association that his days spent at his fully integrated alma mater were some of the best in his life.

Still, most of Baltimore's high schools are now overwhelmingly black and some egregiously bad. That can't be what guys like Robert Carter and lead NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall had in mind on May 17, 1954.

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