Celebrating Brown v. The Board of Education

This week the University of Vermont will sponsor a series of events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. The Board of Education. (Please see the closing paragraphs of this article for details about the UVM activities). In doing so, the University affirms values that have been at the core of its identity since 1791-a devotion to liberty, democratic ideals, and to social justice. These were the values for which Vermonters sacrificed on the battlefields of the Civil War in greater proportion than the citizens of any other state.

Brown v. The Board of Education was the single most important event in the post-World War II civil rights movement that ignited a still-ongoing transformation of American society. The case demonstrated the power of the Supreme Court to rework, for good or ill, the fabric of our civilization-a power that had been demonstrated in the most devastatingly destructive ways in two notorious Court rulings of the previous century that stand out as bracketing in judicial shame the great post-Civil War constitutional amendments that outlawed slavery (the 13th amendment), guaranteed all citizens equal protection of the laws (the 14th), and sought to guarantee that the right of citizens to vote would “not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (the 15th).

In the first of these baleful Supreme Court cases, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney struck down the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as unconstitutional, holding that Congress could not forbid citizens from taking their property (that is, human slaves) into any part of the nation, and ruling that a slave was nothing more than property and could never be a citizen. This decision, “a self-inflicted wound” in the words of a later Chief Justice, Charles Evan Hughes, helped lay the stage for the Civil War.

The second dreadful case was the best known in a series of Supreme Court rulings that affirmed the legality of black codes in the former slave states-of state laws designed to deprive black citizens of equal rights, to exclude them from economic and political power, and to subjugate them in a permanent position of inferiority. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court ruled that distinctions based on race did not violate the 13th and 14th amendments and that legally enforced segregation was allowable so long as the law did not stipulate inferior facilities for blacks.

In a ringing dissent, Justice John Harlan thundered: “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. . . . In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case.” Fifty-eight years would pass, however, before Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education. The newly appointed Chief Justice, Earl Warren, a former Republican governor of California, led the court in its unanimous declaration of the unconstitutionality of school segregation, striking down the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy and opening the way for the integration of American society on many fronts, though it would still take legislative action, via the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to begin decisively to undo the damage of a century of legislation design to circumvent the 15th amendment and deprive black citizens in the South of the right to vote.

None of this was very long ago. Extend two 75-year lifetimes end-to-end into the past, and you will find yourself at a date several years earlier than the Dred Scott decision. And as we approach the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board, on May 17, 1954, we celebrate that great decision with the knowledge that the way to integration was decisively opened but that we have a long way to go to its full realization. Many schools are still substantially segregated, with 20% of American school children attending schools in which minority enrollment ranges from 75% to 100%. The past decade, moreover, has seen a strong trend toward resegregation, with the percentage of students attending predominantly single-race schools rising steadily. Beyond the schools, we find extraordinary integration in most workplaces unmatched by social integration; black and white America work together, but live and play largely apart.

The recognition of persistent and significant differencea in the experiences and perspectives of black and white Americans underlies, at least implicitly, the finding of the Supreme Court in another milestone case last year, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, speaking for the majority, found that there is a compelling state interest in allowing the use of race in university admissions, deferring to the judgment of the university that diversity is essential to its educational mission.

In commemorating Brown v. The Board of Education, then, we recognize that the work of diversity and inclusion, in American society at large and here, too, in Vermont, is far from completed. This year we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. The Board Education of Topeka by joining the College of Education and Social Services in a two-day series of events called Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Unfinished Business of Brown v. The Board of Education. These “conversations” will take place on Thursday and Friday, April 8th and 9th.

On Thursday, April 8th, Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver L. Brown, chief plaintiff in the case, will give a keynote address at 4:00 p.m. in the Ira Allen Chapel. On Friday, April 9th at 9:00 a.m., Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president of Dillard University, a historically black institution in New Orleans with a long historical relationship with UVM, will give a keynote address in Carpenter Auditorium of Given Hall, located at the College of Medicine. Dr. Lomax will assume the role of president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund this summer and will receive an honorary degree from UVM next month. Also on Friday, April 9th, there will be a panel discussion, “Our Reality: A Promise Deferred No More,” from 1:30 until 3:00 p.m. in Carpenter Auditorium.

I hope you will join the University in commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka by attending the activities planned for the occasion and by reflecting upon all the good that has been accomplished and all the good that remains to be achieved.