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Honoring a landmark decision

By Diane Curtis

We conclude — unanimously — that in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

Fifty years ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that the U.S. Supreme Court had made a decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a consolidation of lawsuits from four states challenging school segregation. In a landmark ruling that is credited with paving the way for social justice in every aspect of life, the court ruled for the plaintiffs, overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that had served as the justification for "separate but equal" public facilities for different races.

Separate but equal, Warren and his fellow justices concluded, deprived students of their 14th Amendment rights to equal protection of the laws.

As commemorations of the May 17, 1954, decision intensify, African-American California judges and lawyers recalled their lives in segregated schools, the importance of the decision and whether it has lived up to its promise.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown
Mayor Willie Brown

"Brown v. Board of Education officially changed the nation's interpretation of equality in every respect," former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said of the decision. "It related only to education, but it triggered many of the things that have been the redefinitions of what one means by equality and how you measure it. Brown v. Board of Education triggered Rosa Parks in her 1955 decision not to move on that bus.

Brown v. Board of Education triggered SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and all those who started to demonstrate. Brown v. Board of Education triggered the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. All of a sudden around the country, people who had been shackled by so-called 'separate but equal' no longer had to adhere to it."

Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

Windie Scott, now a Sacramento attorney, poses in her band uniform at her integrated high school in Mississippi.
Windie Scott, now a Sacramento attorney, poses in her band uniform at her integrated high school in Mississippi.

Deputy State Controller Windie Scott, who is vice president of the State Bar Board of Governors, was a pre-teen in Biloxi, Miss., "the Riviera of the South," when desegregation finally caught up with the local schools, public and private. Despite a follow-up high court order in 1955 to enact Brown v. Board of with "all deliberate speed," it would take more than a decade for states like Mississippi to take the first steps towards integration.

The daughter of a well-off engineer father and schoolteacher mother, Scott, who had gone to segregated parochial schools until 9th grade, was chosen with four other black children to go to an integrated parochial academy. "You were told, 'What you're doing is important. This is bigger than you are," she remembered. Scott took her responsibility seriously.

For the first time, she integrated the school's widely renowned band — a longtime dream — and the young trumpet player stoically withstood taunts and slights and such other indignities as not being able to find anyone to give her a band uniform or having a band appearance canceled because she was a member. The hardships, she said, were worth it because she knew she was forwarding the civil rights cause.

"It was powerful because education had to be changed first," Scott said. "It was the children who were the warriors. White children had to accept a whole new way of life. It was interesting the ones who had the courage to play with us."

Like Scott, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte spent her early years in Mississippi. She grew up in "abject poverty" in Meridian with 11 brothers and sisters, a mother who worked as a domestic and a father who was unemployed because of a disability. Four or five children slept in one bed and one reversible dress served as school wear. Harbin-Forte's parents, who didn't finish elementary school, put a high premium on education for their children.

"Education meant everything. It was a way out of poverty, hopelessness and desolation," she said. The black teachers in her segregated school also impressed upon the students that they needed to get an education and succeed not just for themselves, but because they were representatives of their race.

When Meridian schools finally were integrated (Harbin-Forte was born the year of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, but local schools weren't integrated until she was in 10th grade), there was no question that the young black students would embrace the change no matter what sacrifices were required.

"The mixing of the races caused a lot of tension. There were fights . . . . We were not scared because it was a time of a lot of black pride. I felt secure because I had teachers and a family that supported me. And I certainly felt that because of that support, I could do anything I wanted to do and be anything I wanted to be," Harbin-Forte recalled.

When her white history teacher, Mr. Holmes, was fired after a white student complained that he had made the students in his class sit alphabetically rather than allow whites to be on one side of the room and blacks on the other as in the other classes, Harbin-Forte led a class boycott. The teacher was not reinstated but the young woman's feeling of empowerment and determination to fight injustice was cemented.

In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

Harbin-Forte, Scott and others wouldn't change those harrowing yet exhilarating days of integrating the schools for anything because of their contributions towards equality. However, like many other black children, they said the immediate goal of Brown v. Board of Education — to improve education for black children — just didn't happen.

They may have moved to a school with indoor plumbing and a state-of-the-art gym, and they may have suddenly found that all textbooks weren't ragged hand-me-downs, but they also didn't get the kind of caring attention they had received from their teachers in all-black schools.

"I thought I was getting a good education," Robert Harris, vice president for environmental affairs with Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco, said of his segregated schooling in a two-room country shack outside Arkadelphia, Ark. "My teachers were very supportive. They told me I was smart. I was getting good grades, all the way through elementary school, and I was in the top of my class."

Harbin-Forte had a similar experience. "I think the education was best when I was in segregated schools and had black teachers. They were good and they cared about African-American students. I just really give credit to my teachers, who showed dignity and grace and brilliance. And they were able to inspire. If you think about the situation we were in, we should have felt powerless. But they empowered us. They made us dream."

Still, the education in many segregated schools was far inferior even with dedicated teachers. Willie Brown recalls, as a boy growing up in Mineola, Texas, having a dream to go to Stanford University and become a math professor.

"But I got a rude awakening that I did not have the high school credentials that would even allow me to take the exam to get into the university," he said. "You had to have languages, certain subject matter, college prep courses that I had not been exposed to. The person teaching math was the coach, and he made it clear he didn't know anything about math."

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

It was the confidence and strength imparted by their earliest teachers that helped both Harris and Harbin-Forte resist a new form of discrimination when they moved to California for their last years of high school. Rather than the colorblind education they were hoping for away from the Deep South, they found that blacks and whites were segregated by different educational paths: college for whites and vocational jobs for blacks.

Both put up a fight and refused to be put on a non-college track, but they saw that they were the exceptions. And like everyone else, they have witnessed a resegregation of the schools, especially in the inner cities.

Joseph Duff, a "civil rights attorney to my bones" who fought for integration in Los Angeles schools, said the schools are more segregated now than when he fought the case in the '70s. "I think the schools are better than they were in the larger sense, but the gap between the good schools and the bad schools is worse."

"If you look at the educational system today and compare it to where it was in 1954, there is an argument that can be made that no significant progress has been made for the masses of black people," said Robert Harris.

"The legal decision was clear," said Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris. "Most things that involve civil rights flow from it . . . Politically it was more complex. What you have now is a resegregation of schools, which is a function of a lot of different things: population growth patterns, residential patterns, political will, lack of commitment of public resources to education. So you have inferior education."

Brown v. Board of Education, summed up Harbin-Forte, "was a monumental decision in that it validated what so many of us had felt for so very long — that separate wasn't equal. It validated our sense of injustice . . . It was a landmark decision, but it didn't solve the problems . . . It was the beginning of change."

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