Looking back, still learning


History: Fifty years after `Brown,' stories remain to be told.

May 02, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE HILLS are alive with the sounds of Brown.

It's a rare news organization that isn't pulling out all stops in coverage of the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in the nation's public schools.

Countless colleges, universities, museums, libraries and other institutions have sponsored forums and other events around Brown. Plaintiffs in the five cases that were bundled into Brown are so sought-after that they've had to hire agents.

There's a gallery of stunning photographs from the civil rights era at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a separate exhibit in the UMBC library of photos taken in the early years of desegregation in Baltimore. Author Toni Morrison is out with a marvelous pictorial depiction of the desegregation era. Written for children, it's titled Remember.

Experts also are in demand. Larry Gibson, Baltimore native, law professor and authority on civil rights litigation, delivered his ninth lecture on Brown vs. Board of Education on Friday at the University of Maryland law school. The night before, Gibson had been a speaker on the same subject at Goucher College. "It's my 15 minutes of fame," he said.

Usually, I don't much care for anniversary journalism, but Brown is an exception. The reporting and research into the case have done more than spark memories. They've also expanded our knowledge of what happened 50 years ago, especially in Maryland, a state forever identified with the Brown case and its aftermath.

These histories also remind us of the extraordinary pains whites took to avoid racial mixing.

One of Gibson's best stories has to do with the "separate but equal" beaches at Sandy Point State Park. In June 1954, threatened with a lawsuit, Maryland moved tons of white sand to the park's east beach so the state could claim in federal court that the blacks-only east strand was the equal of the whites-only south beach.

"Miraculously, a state that couldn't do anything in a month, what with procurement regulations and all, managed to do all of this in one month," said Gibson.

In the end, the ploy didn't work. In November 1955, the Supreme Court agreed with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that the principle of Brown - that separate could never be equal - applied not only to public schools, but to beaches and other public accommodations.

That was an important breakthrough, said Gibson.

Last weekend I was in Charlottesville, Va., which also went to extremes to avoid desegregation. In 1958, Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr., a Charlottesville native, enforced the commonwealth's "massive resistance" laws by closing two all-white schools rather than see them attended by African-Americans.

They were closed for five months in a classic case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. "We were appalled and thought it would be over quickly," said Hugh Gildea, who was about to start the ninth grade at Lane High School that fall, "but when it became obvious that it would last, my mother enrolled me in Albemarle [County] High School."

Courts overturned Virginia's resistance laws on Robert E. Lee's birthday in January 1959, and this paved the way for the desegregation of Lane High - in the form of three black students - nine months later. (and five years after Brown).

The inferior all-black schools in Charlottesville are long-gone, and to this day the city has but a single school for fifth- and sixth-graders, one for seventh- and eighth-graders, and one high school. This one-school-for-all-kids approach guarantees racial mixing in Charlottesville and dozens of other Southern towns and counties (if whites haven't flown the coop for private schools and segregation academies).

Today in Charlottesville, classrooms, bands and clubs are integrated. Every one of the dozen middle and high school bands in the city's annual Dogwood Parade last Saturday was salt and pepper. But at night the kids return to their segregated neighborhoods. School board member Deirdre Smith told me the real struggle in Charlottesville is "overcoming inequality in student achievement."

Lane High is now a county office building where my son works. On a quiet weekend afternoon recently, I thought I could hear the taunts as those three scared kids walked the gantlet into Lane one September morning, 1959. They changed things forever.

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