Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Teaching Brown v. Board of Education: 60 Years Later

(Top) Linda Brown attends an integrated school after the 1954 decision. (Bottom) A map showing the probability by county that a Black student has White classmates.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Oliver Brown et. al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. There were commemorations of the Supreme Court decision around the country, including one featuring Attorney General Eric Holder. As most people know, this landmark Supreme Court case ruled that school segregation based on race was unconstitutional. However, as a historical event, it is important that social studies teachers help students critically examine the case.

Although Brown was an incredibly important legal step forward, numerous scholars have argued that its underlying purpose has never been fully achieved. Despite the initial increase of school integration, there is clear evidence that racial segregation continues to persist. In fact, the segregation of Latino children is now a hidden epidemic in the United States and in many states a high percentage of Black and White students attend racially segregated schools. Moreover, the Brown decision has led to a distorted belief among Americans that racial discrimination is no longer a systematic problem and was solved by the courts some time ago. This has recently manifested itself in several different ways, including the abandonment of school desegregation plans (for example, by the Court in Seattle and by the school board in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County), a growing popular nostalgia for a pre-Brown society, and some politicians (including here in Boston) showing a lack of support for school integration.

When teaching about Brown, it is crucial that teachers have students examine questions like: "Did Brown v. Board of Education achieve its intended goal of desegregating public schools?" and "Did the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education go far enough?" These lessons should be rooted not only in the past, but also in the legacy and shortcomings of Brown today.

Below are primary and secondary sources that teachers can use to help students examine the past and present of Brown:

Cornell Law School: Full text of the Brown v. Board of Education I court decision

Cornell Law School: Full text of the Brown v. Board of Education II court decision

University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law: Brown overview

The Los Angeles Times: Brown headline story 1954

The National Archived: Brown case documents

The Nation: Coverage in The Nation of the Brown court case 1954 Overview of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007)

Cornell Law School: Full text of the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007)

Teaching Tolerance: Segregation Today

USA Today: Education racial segregation map 2014

Speech: Eric Holder on the 60th Anniversary of Brown

The Atlantic: Brown Improved Education Opportunities for African Americans

Images: (Top) The Brown family: Linda, sister Cheryl, mother Leola, and father Oliver. (Bottom) Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nikie on the steps of the Supreme Court after the Brown ruling.