Last night, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration of life services were held for Linda Brown, a woman whose legal fight for equality in education helped set the precedent for King’s nonviolent fight for equality in everything.
I wasn’t yet born on the day King was assassinated. My father was just one year old when the Supreme Court ruled that Linda Brown could not be denied, because of her race, the opportunity to go to the school of her choosing.
We would both technically grow up in a post-Brown v. Board of Education world and experience pieces of Martin’s dream.
Although my father is no longer here, I am alive and well. And yet, the day after remembering two individuals whose courage and sacrifice made it possible for us to have an equal shot at the education and life we deserved, I found myself vacillating between feelings of gratitude and frustration…between hope and outrage.
We’re not where we should be, but we’re not where we once were
Shortly after news broke of Brown’s passing in March, many began to debate whether or not school segregation has improved since the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. While the decision marked the end of the “separate but equal” precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson, it wasn’t until 1955 that the court provided guidance for how states should begin implementing desegregation. The instruction to move forward “with all deliberate speed” has led some to believe that meant whenever states want, or in a perfect world for segregationists: never.
Over the years, various studies and data suggest that schools today are just as segregated, if not more segregated, than in 1954.
But, federal troops aren’t escorting six-year olds to elementary school or Black teens to high school. And no one is standing in the schoolhouse door blocking high school graduates from entering college…at least not physically and literally. This isn’t happening today, but because these things did happen at one time, I and members of my family have had the legal right to walk into any school and take our seat at the desk next to someone who doesn’t look like us.
For that, I am grateful.
Have there been other obstacles in the way to get there? Absolutely. Have the remnants of housing segregation perpetuated a cycle of poverty that continues to separate Black families from each other as well as White families? Most definitely.
Is where a child lives typically an indicator of where they’ll go to school?
Despite the expansion of school choice, the answer is still yes. And as a result, we still see Black students going to school with mainly Black students and White students going to school with mainly White students.
For some this is by choice. For others, exercising the choice for something different is a relentless challenge thanks to the systems of discrimination that still affect life in Black America.
We can and must do more to increase students’ access to a wide variety of schools that exceptionally meet their needs. And this should include but not be limited to those schools that are less diverse.
But the debated percent of Black students attending integrated schools today shouldn’t be our main focus. Thanks to Linda Brown, 100 percent of Black students have the legal right to attend any school. And that must be acknowledged.
To ignore it is to disregard her family’s sacrifice and diminish the impact of the fight she reflected on often.
“To me, the impact of Brown is best seen in the increasing numbers of black professionals today. These are the people that, after 1954, were able to have some degree of choice. This surely made a difference in their aspirations and their achievements.”
We must now work to complete King’s dream and make sure all children everywhere have equal access to an excellent education of their choosing, whether that be in an all Black or Latino school, predominantly White school or a school more reflective of the United Nations.
But as former Secretary of Education John King said yesterday, “Resources follow white, middle class, and affluent kids. That’s a reality of our society.”
And it’s a reality we must change.
With the right focus, we can realize “the dream”
Even after the Brown v. Board decision, I think King also believed we needed to focus more on making sure Black students received a quality education no matter where they attended.
“Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education,” he said while speaking at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.
So today, anything short of a just and quality education for all should leave us not just dissatisfied, but outraged.
… outraged when students in Detroit have to sue for the right to literacy and equal access to a quality education.
…outraged when Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in schools.
…outraged when English language learners don’t receive the support they need to succeed.
…outraged enough to do something about it.
“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
When King spoke these words, not all of the battles fought by Black Americans had been won. But, we pressed on, finding hope in the victories along the way. Because of that, I too, can find hope in the change that has brought progress and the changemakers leading the way forward.
Advocates like Mendell Grinter remind us that the fight for equality in education is still one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.
And Black parents, teachers and students can come together to discuss solutions to the myriad challenges still keeping Black students from obtaining an excellent education.
If there’s anything the last 50 years has shown us, it’s that while we haven’t overcome everything, we have certainly overcome a lot.
While we’re sure to reflect on the life and legacy of Linda Brown and Martin Luther King Jr. another 50 years from now, the best way to honor them is to challenge fiercely the remaining inequities and drive the kind of landmark change they fought for so many years ago.