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The Unfulfilled Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

May 17, 2010

Fifty-six years ago this month, on May 17th, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.  The Court found that racially segregated schools were inherently discriminatory and violated the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing “all citizens equal protection of the laws”.

The historic nature of this case, actually a combination of five cases involving nearly 200 plaintiffs, cannot be overstated.   The outcome established the legal basis to attack all forms of legally sanctioned racial segregation and isolation that had denied millions of Americans access not just to a quality education but to jobs, housing and public facilities and services of all types.  The decision was a key factor in fueling the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Nonetheless, the fundamental Constitutional guarantees of equal rights reaffirmed in Brown v. Board of Education have not been fully realized.  Though extraordinary progress has been made, the struggle continues on many fronts, including education. 

The majority of black children remain concentrated in crumbling schools across America, with no real access to a quality education. In a March 31st letter to the chairman and ranking minority leader of the Senate House, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, the Lawyers’ Committee emphasized how critical it is for Congress to include civil rights protections in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  A link to the full letter is below.  In it we stated: “America’s public education system is the building block of our society.  Our nation’s children have been promised a free and quality public education, but as is all too well known, this promise has not been fulfilled for many of our youth for decades… This requires that the Committee adopt measures that not simply encourage, but require certain standards in all of our public schools, including charters, and provide the proper resources, incentives and guidance for schools to comply”.  Throughout this reauthorization debate, we will advocate strongly with Congress and key Administration officials, including the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, to ensure that the final bill includes the appropriate civil rights protections.

The Lawyers’ Committee is also focusing on inequities in the country’s post secondary education system.  We represent the plaintiffs in The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission, in a case that alleges that Maryland has failed to dismantle the effects of its prior de jure system.  The suit details “state sponsored discrimination” in Maryland’s public university system.  Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were maintained all across the country as part of the “separate but equal” façade. In the years since the decision, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has consistently failed to equally support HBCUs in the state, and actively sought to undermine them by duplicating their programs at traditionally White universities.  The result: Black enrollment is minimal in the traditionally White universities and the HBCUs are denied the means to deliver the same quality of education.

As we engage in these efforts, we confront the undeniable evidence every day that the promise of Brown v. Board of Education has not been fully realized, With this clear understanding, that The Lawyers’ Committee will be unrelenting in its efforts, through advocacy and litigation, to help bring about an America in which the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment cited in the Brown v. Board of Education decision is fully and consistently honored for all citizens.

Barbara Arnwine

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