Separate Is Not Equal - Brown v. Board of Education

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Brown v. Board of Education: Fifty Years Later
Video Transcript

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Congressman James Clyburn, South Carolina:
We were riding along one day in an automobile, leaving my grandfather’s house. He lived out on a farm in Lee County, South Carolina. And as we came back to the main road, to take the trip back to Sumter, my father swerved his automobile to go around a tree limb that had fallen across our path. And as he swerved to go around it, I remarked, “Somebody ought to move that thing.” And my daddy slammed on the brakes and he looked at me and says, “Well, aren’t you somebody? Get out of the car and move it.” And I did. And I share that with, even with first graders. And I tell them that little story so that they will understand that somebody did some things to remove obstacles to make sure that this school was here for you, to make sure that these books are here. And they didn’t wait for you to come along. They did it.

Judge Louis Pollak:
I had been a law clerk in Washington in 1948 to ‘49, clerking for Mr. Justice Rutledge. And down the hall, clerking for Mr. Justice Frankfurter, was William Coleman. Bill asked me whether I would like to work, join him in doing some work for Mr. Marshall, who was developing the school cases. And I said, “Of course.”

Ted Shaw, NAACP, LDEF:
Well, the Legal Defense Fund, under Thurgood Marshall’s direction, but with judge. . . .now Judge Robert Carter, Bob Carter; Constance Baker Motley; the late James Nabrit Jr., whose son, Jim Nabrit III, served as associate director counsel of the Legal Defense Fund for many years; Lou Pollak; and others litigated the Brown cases.

Judge Louis Pollak:
Thurgood Marshall was a leader. He was a big man, physically a big man, with a big voice and a wonderful laugh. He had no difficulty in listening to all of us contentious fellows with egos, with opinions, ready to spout off at any moment and doing the spouting off. And it all would have seemed, to anybody who was sitting there, a disorderly kind of process. Noisy, laughter, profane, jokey, whatever. And at the point when decisions had to be made, and Mr. Marshall would say, “All right, I think we should go this way.”

John Hope Franklin, Historian:
It was when I was at Cornell that Thurgood Marshall called me and asked me, “Do you know what you’re going to be doing this fall?” I said, “Yes, I’m going back to Howard University to teach.” He said, “You know what else you’ll be doing?” I said, “No.” He said, “You’ll be working for me.” The question was, what about the impact of the Fourteenth Amendment on segregated schools? Did they intend that they should be segregated, desegregated? The people who framed the Fourteenth Amendment, the people who voted for the Fourteenth Amendment, the people who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, did they have in mind the ending of segregation in the public schools? And that was a great question which was raised by the Court. The lawyers didn’t have the answers, so they asked the historians to find the answers for them. And so that’s what he meant when he asked me to come on and work in the fall of 1953.

Judge Robert Carter:
The Brown Legacy, that Brown was done was a thing of black intellect. Houston, Marshall, Carter. And the country, you know, is celebrating what Brown means and all that sort of stuff, is not really, is not really understanding that what it is celebrating, for one of few times in history, is something that has been done and achieved by black minds.

Judge Louis Pollak:
If the case had been lost, if the Court had reaffirmed the Plessy case, I simply can’t think of what our country would be.

John Hope Franklin, Historian:
My wife was a librarian at Spingarn High School in Washington. She called me the afternoon of May 17, 1954, and said “Have you heard about the decision?” And I said, “No, what decision?” She said, “The Supreme Court.”

Rod Paige, Secretary of Education:
We were in our dormitory, and some of the guys were sitting around just talking. Another person ran in and said, “Did you hear what just happened?”

John Hope Franklin, Historian:
I said, “What was it?” She said, “It was unanimous.” And I gave out some shriek, I suppose. I was not only relieved, but very gratified. And whatever I was doing, I stopped doing that afternoon.

Congressman James Clyburn, South Carolina:
And all of us thought that this meant that come September, there would be no more double sessions of school for us black kids, that we would all be able to sit in the same classroom with all the other kids, we would get the same textbooks. We would no longer be getting the books, used books that were ragged and torn and all written through, workbooks that were already completed.

Honorable Rod Paige, Secretary of Education:
Everybody at Jackson State University had experienced really hard-nosed segregation. And to us, this was a magical end. Prematurely, we were celebrating the end of segregation.

Judge Robert Carter:
A number of people felt, of course, that this was the end, including Thurgood. The theory was that segregation was the evil, and if segregation is removed, then everything is so and people are going to be okay. I wasn’t really wedded to that. And, of course, it proved to be not true because once segregation was eliminated, that segregation in terms of America wasn’t really the problem. Segregation was a symptom of what the disease is. White supremacy is the issue here in this country.

Professor John Hope Franklin:
It was the unequivocal unanimous opinion of the United States Supreme Court that helped this country to understand what equality of opportunity was all about. And that . . . and the words of Chief Justice Warren, that segregation is inherently unconstitutional, that the segregated schools are inherently unconstitutional, that’s a big statement.

Professor Okianer Christian Dark, Howard University School of Law:
Rules of law, sometimes they reflect the past, sometimes they reflect what we presently think is the right position, and then, every now and then, the rules reflect a vision of a future that is yet to exist. And that’s what Brown did. Brown, the Brown decision was a vision of a future that we hoped would exist. And the courts opened up the way by providing the constitutional basis for it.

Ted Shaw, NAACP, LDEF:
Brown eliminated legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination. It made it illegal. It put teeth in the Fourteenth Amendment. Brown did not eliminate segregation and discrimination. That work is still before us.

Nina Totenberg, Reporter:
I’m a reporter who covers the Supreme Court, and so I have asked a lot of people about the legacy of Brown. And what you realize when you do that, and when you look at all the papers in the archives about the Court’s deliberations leading up to Brown, what you realize is that even though Brown didn’t change the world immediately, there wasn’t suddenly school desegregation in the South, it was more than a decade, really two decades, before it really started to progress seriously. And one could even make the argument that the schools are now resegregated. But even though it didn’t have an instantaneous practical effect, it had a profound moral effect. And the status quo in this country changed dramatically because of Brown , from two races, two lives, two sets of circumstances, to a country that at least aspires to one. It doesn’t always achieve it, but it aspires to one.

Rod Paige, Secretary of Education:
Brown v. the Board of Education is such a wonderful start, but a start nonetheless. We must finish it by assuring that now that people have access to, if we could use a metaphor, to the diner, we should make sure once they get in, they get a good meal.

Reg Weaver, President, NEA:
Eighty-five percent of the richest parents in America, they send their children to a public school. And they send their children to a public school because their public schools have qualified, certified teachers, state-of-the-art technology, high standards and accountability, safe and orderly environment, counselors, they have adequate and equitable funding. And I’m saying to implement the true intent of Brown, I want all children to have access to the same quality of education that 85 percent of the richest parents have for their children.

Thomas Saenz, MALDEF:
There are still tremendous inequities for minority children, African American, Latino children, throughout the United States who are confined to schools that don’t offer the same resources, don’t offer the same courses, don’t offer the same quality of teaching as other schools. And that’s the unfulfilled promise of Brown that we’re still working through the courts, through policy-making bodies, to try to achieve.

Ted Shaw, NAACP, LDEF:
I think Brown fundamentally changed American society. We as a nation now believe in the principles of the Fourteenth Amendment, equal protection under law. Before Brown, equal protection under the law was something that was inscribed above the columns of the Supreme Court building. It was something that we talked about rhetorically, but it was not a reality. That principle is more of a reality now, although it’s not entirely reality.

Judge Robert Carter:
Brown told black people that you’re as good as anybody else. And so it gave them a sense of freedom that they had never had before. And they didn’t have to depend on any white man or any good friends and so forth, they had it by birth, a right. And this transformed, this is what has transformed race relations in this country.

Florence Pritchett, Teacher:
Doors have opened, doors that were closed before. Young people are able to attend any school anywhere that they want to, and that’s very important.

Felicia Meier, Teacher:
When I teach the Brown case, I basically start by asking them, you know, look around you and look at your school and look at your classroom. If Brown v. Board of Education hadn’t passed, you know, what would be different here? And, you know, some of them will respond, well, for example, I wouldn’t have such and such a teacher because he’s African American. And he happens to be one of the most popular teachers in the school, but he wouldn’t have been there.

Tom Saenz, MALDEF:
Brown v. Board of Education, and specifically the litigation campaign that led to it, inspired our founder, Pete Tijerina, in Texas, to believe in his vision of creating a similar organization to serve the needs of Latinos.

Francey Lim Youngberg, Lawyer:
In the Asian American community we see African Americans as a role model in terms of advocacy in their effectiveness in being able to serve their community, so this is something that’s very important to us.

Reg Weaver, NEA:
While Brown has done a lot to raise the expectations of society, to raise expectations of the culture, we still find that it is a work in progress.

Ted Shaw, NAACP, LDEF:
We’re still fighting the battle to fulfill the promise of Brown even as we’re in the beginning of the 21st century. But to be perfectly candid about it, these cases are slipping away. The courts are much more conservative and they’re abandoning the principle of Brown. We as a nation, I think, honor Brown more in principle than we do in practice.

Professor Okianer Christian Dark, Howard University School of Law:
We still, as a society, have not finished the work of Brown because we haven’t finished getting serious about the ways in which race divides us, and continues to divide us in this country. And how we fear it and how we are paralyzed by it. And saying things like, “It doesn’t matter, we’re all the same,” does not take care of the problem. And so we still need, there’s still need for litigation, unfortunately. And there’s still need for some legislation, unfortunately. But the most important thing that we need is a will and a real, genuine commitment on the part of each of us to try and make that vision that was embodied in Brown a reality.

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