Leading the way

May 16, 2004

AMERICA'S apartheid laws would fall, one by one, in the years following the Supreme Court's ruling on May 17, 1954, in the consolidated Brown vs. Board of Education cases. While Brown specifically swept away laws that denied rights to black schoolchildren, its triumph was about much more.

The lawyers who built the case, the justices who ruled unanimously, and the fractured society that uneasily awaited the decision understood that any affirmation of constitutional rights guaranteed Americans regardless of color would help topple Jim Crow. The next year, Rosa Parks was refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Court orders would open Maryland beaches and parks to integration. In time, housing covenants would be shattered. Restrictions on interracial marriage would end. Voting rights would be won.

But first, Brown would expose the sham of "separate but equal" in educational opportunities. Even this newspaper had bragged about Maryland's so-called equal education for blacks, despite the lack of high schools for blacks in the counties, the hand-me-down books (that still occasionally surface in city school libraries), the lower pay for black teachers who toiled in segregated classrooms. Chief Justice Earl Warren was unequivocal: Separate was inherently and patently unequal.

Today, we look back and see how efforts at integration were thwarted, and how in many areas, inequality was allowed to persist long after the legal walls were torn down.

It's not possible to commemorate the Brown victory without noting its remedial lesson, that changing laws does not change hearts. Brown opened many a door. Regrettably, many segments of American society obstructed the threshold or refused to cross it. Change came slowly, painfully, and at each turn met resistance that too often was violent. Is it any wonder that today, when thoughtful people gather to discuss Brown's impact, many who led the way -- black and white -- describe palpable memories of intermingled fear, curiosity, anger, loneliness, anxiety, resoluteness, even bitterness?

Despite the many personal and institutional triumphs made when and where access to a better education was delivered, Brown's promise remains unfulfilled.

The nation's public schools, especially its urban schools, are again largely segregated, and burdened with presumptions of -- and in many cases actual -- inferiority. We need look no further than Baltimore to see the impact. School systems with the largest concentrations of the poor and children of color typically have less-qualified teachers, lower graduation rates, lower test scores, and staggering needs for resources and special education services.

It is not a separation sanctioned by law. Now it is supported by the abandonment of urban areas by the middle class, white and black, whose wealth and political clout follow them to the suburbs -- undeniably an unanticipated reaction to Brown. And today, a direct line can be drawn from Brown to Thornton and similar funding battles across the country connecting the campaign to eradicate "separate but equal" to the contemporary legal challenges demanding adequacy if not equity in school funding. But we also know that money alone won't solve the problem; concentrated poverty and inadequate preparation also must be addressed.

The unresolved issue of equal opportunity 50 years after Brown remains Maryland's and the nation's shame. The solution remains elusive, but the challenge is clear. The Brown anniversary demands that we remember a time when America put its children in the forefront of its hopes and ideals. We need no more reminder than to see the quintessential images of girls with beribboned hair and bobby socks, boys in suit jackets and skinny ties, showing uncommon courage as they broke the color bar, as they led the way.

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