||Issue Date: 5 / 2004
David W. Almasi
In 1951 Oliver Brown sought a better education for his
daughters. His case resulted in the 1954 Brown v. Board of
Education decision that nullified the concept of "separate but
At a press conference held recently in the Mansfield Room of the U.S. Capitol, black political activist Mychal Massie noted: "I stand here cognizant of the fact that, not many years ago, my mother could have hoped only to scrub the floors here. But, today, I stand here addressing the nation. I am aware than my son can one day stand here and address the world."
Massie was only a year old when the Supreme Court effectively integrated our nation's public schools through its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He was raised in a single-parent home by a mother who had received only an eighth-grade education. She worked as a maid to provide for her family. Because of educational opportunities opened up to him by Brown, Mychal received a quality education that later helped him start his own insurance business.
Today, his success has allowed him to pursue his passion for writing and politics full time. His son Gideon will represent the United States in several cycling events this summer at the Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The Brown ruling did not guarantee Massie the happy life he has enjoyed. His mother summed it up best, warning him, "Mychal, the world's your oyster; it's up to you to figure out how to open the shell."
How it all began
Oliver Brown put the wheels of change in motion in 1951. He objected to his daughters having to walk over a mile through a railway yard to get to a black school when a whites-only school was located just seven blocks from their home. To the NAACP, Brown was "the right plaintiff at the right time" to mount its long-desired challenge to public school segregation. In the unanimous 1954 decision that originated from Brown's complaint, the Court ruled: "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."
The decision did more than simply allow the Brown family to take advantage of that nearby school in Topeka, Kansas. It also made 21 state laws enforcing educational segregation unconstitutional. While it did not abolish all forms of segregation or even all public school segregation, it was, in the words of Brown's daughter Cheryl Brown Thompson, "the beginning of the end." At a recent retrospective on post-Brown America, she remarked: "Education [is] the down payment on freedom. Education is the down payment on opportunity."
By tearing down racial barriers to education, the Supreme Court essentially leveled the playing field for future generations. It gave all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, the ability to take advantage of the best in American learning. Once they applied themselves, these black children could compete fairly with others in the job market. With added skills and wealth at their disposal, the remaining racial barriers in America were soon to fall.
Brown brought opportunity. As Brown's daughter and Massie's mother have pointed out, however, this is only a place to start. To achieve success is something that is the duty of families to teach and individuals to learn. Opportunity never comes with a guarantee.
The tide rises for black America
Opening quality schools to all students had an immediate effect on black educational attainment. In 1960, just 20.1 percent of blacks had a high school diploma or more. Only 3.1 percent had a college degree. In both cases, it was less than half the percentage of their white counterparts. By 2000, 78.5 percent of blacks had a high school education or better, and 16.5 percent had at least a college degree. Among whites, the numbers rose to 84.5 and 26.1 percent, respectively.
Working from the adage that "a rising tide floats all boats," it can be surmised that the entire state of black America must have improved as a result of increased access to educational opportunity and higher black educational attainment. Statistics prove this assertion to be true.
By 1999, total black unemployment fell to 7.3 percent. This is about half of what it had been 20 years before. In contrast, the unemployment rate was definitely lower among those with a higher level of education. In 1990, black college graduates had an unemployment rate of only 1.9 percent.
Incomes naturally rose with the increase in employment. Census data report that the median black household income between 2000 and 2002 was $29,982. As with educational attainment, the rise in black household incomes has brought blacks and whites closer to parity. In 1959, a two-adult black family earned just 57 percent as much as their white counterparts. In 1990, this figure had risen to 84 percent. Overall, black family incomes have risen three times faster than those of the nation as a whole since Brown.
Back in 1967, 0.9 percent of black households had a total income of over $100,000 (calculated in 2002 dollars). By 2002, it had risen to 6.4 percent. The number of black-owned businesses rose by 46 percent between 1987 and 1997, while the national average for growth was a substantially lower 26 percent. The increased number of black-owned businesses caused the amount of their sales to rise from $19.8 billion to $59.3 billion--during that same period. Outside of black-owned businesses, black executives run Fortune 500 companies such as Time Warner, Merrill Lynch, and American Express.
On the other side of the economic spectrum, poverty rates among blacks have fallen dramatically. In 1959, 61 percent of black children in intact families lived in poverty. By 1995, that number had fallen to 13 percent. The number of black seniors in poverty fell from 48 percent in 1970 to 25.4 percent in 1995. Harkening back to the opportunities presented by the Brown decision, a correlation exists between poverty and educational attainment. Blacks without a high school degree are four times likelier to be living in poverty than those with college degrees or more.
Help is not always needed
In 1962, a black U.S. Air Force veteran named James Meredith transferred from Jackson State College to the University of Mississippi. Federal law enforcement and the U.S. military were called in to help him integrate the venerated Ole Miss, and the violent clashes related to his desire to learn led to two deaths, 48 wounded soldiers, and 30 U.S. marshals treated for gunshot wounds.
Meredith graduated the next year. He received a law degree from Columbia University in 1968. In 1972, he ran for Congress. In the late 1980s, he became a member of the staff of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Today, Meredith's son John is a respected Washington lobbyist. John, who got his master's degree at Mississippi College, is free to wander the corridors of the U.S. Capitol without fear of being stopped or challenged. On the fortieth anniversary of the Brown decision, his brother Joseph was awarded a Ph.D. from Ole Miss without incident.
John Meredith thinks that Brown v. Board of Education is the most important thing to happen to black Americans apart from their emancipation from slavery. But he tempers his praise by noting that it creates "potential" rather than a guarantee of success: "The Supreme Court only opened the door to the dream. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not he will walk through that door. Walking through the door takes years of perseverance. In addition to demanding classes and enormous amounts of homework assigned by the better educational systems, many blacks must endure school administrations that want them to fail and in turn discourage other blacks from attending in the future. Finances often play a discouraging role as well, with parents often taking on second jobs to pay for tuition.
"No matter the cost of one's personal sacrifice in the short run, it is worth it for every black person in America to walk through the door," says Meredith. "Without a quality education, black people will continue to be trapped in a low-wage, mostly manual labor job market that can only afford them an opportunity to live in a marginal neighborhood and educate their children in an inferior public education system--the schools being reflective of the tax base in which they operate."
No one ever said that Brown eradicated racism. Petty jealousy and muddled thinking will forever fuel the sparks of racism in our society, and sometimes people with racist mind-sets will achieve positions of power. The Brown precedent and the many civil rights laws and enforcement agencies at every level of government protect Americans from the tyranny of these individuals. But what about the "soft bigotry of low expectations?"
After a surge in the test scores of black 17-year-olds--as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress--scores are now dropping among this group in subjects like math, reading, and writing. Even more troubling is the fact that there is not a similar drop among their white counterparts.
Some would argue the drop in black educational progress is the result of a new segregation that society is not willing to discuss. It's the segregation of poor schools in poor communities. Kati Haycock of the Education Trust says: "When you look at the schools that [blacks] attend, the problems quickly become apparent. The curriculum has often been watered down. The teachers often have an inadequate amount of training and experience."
Many conservatives agree. In their book America in Black and White, social scientists Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom suggest: "We ask too little of the students and too little of their teachers, and even minimal demands are often stymied. ... The vulnerability of whites is to the charge of racism, that of blacks to the claim of inferiority."
Massie, who is a member of the conservative black leadership network Project 21, blames "parental failure, the inclusion of negative cultural ideologies to the exclusion of sound biblical truths, the lack of discipline, and the unwavering acceptance of failure as being the fault of someone else." He adds: "Today's educational system is much like today's political system. It is about self-preservation. The more failures they can point to, the more money they can ask for to fix said problems."
Massie worries about the disincentive of "getting good grades [and] being like 'whitey.' " His concerns are echoed by Mike Green, another Project 21 member. Green laments: "Our ancestors died in slavery, dreaming of the day when their descendants would be able to read, write, and compete in this country on a level with the best of white children. That day has come, and far too many squander those opportunities."
It's best, however, to spread out criticism. National Center for Education Statistics data support the notion that more black parents are becoming involved in the educational progress of their children. Increasing numbers of black parents routinely help their children with homework, read to them, or enroll them in primary educational classes. A more pressing problem lies in the community as a whole, where the perception that doing well is "doing the white thing" is prevalent among black students.
"As one of six children, the greatest gift I received from my dear, now-departed mother was an appreciation of the value of an education. This appreciation helped me rise from our poor surroundings in inner-city Cleveland to become the successful black professional I am today," reports Darryn Martin, a member of the U.S. Foreign Service. Martin was born long after Brown v. Board of Education lowered the racial bar against blacks in education. Against the perceived odds and the anti-intellectualism of his peers, he succeeded.
Brown opened up the schoolhouse doors for Cheryl and Linda Brown in 1954. It allowed James Meredith to go to the college of his choice in 1962 and his sons to do the same years later. Mychal Massie, Mike Green, Darryn Martin, and countless others all were able to receive a quality education as a result of Brown and subsequently enjoy their own personal and professional successes. Each one has the added advantage of being motivated to succeed.
Black America has benefited greatly from the legacy of the Brown decision, but it was simply a stepping stone on a long journey. It opened the doors to a throng of takers, but the tide shows signs of waning. Turning this disappointing trend around cannot be done in a courtroom. It can only come from inside.
Brown v. Board of Education, available at www.nationalcenter.org/brown.html.
Edward W. Knappman, ed., Great American Trials, Visible Ink, Detroit, 1994.
"James Meredith," available at www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/meredith_james.
Joseph Serwach, Brown Sisters Explore Half-Century of Desegregation, available at
Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997.
David W. Almasi is executive director of the National Center
for Public Policy Research and director of the African-
American leadership network Project 21.