I am writing this from my hospital bed. I am at a rehab center after getting a total knee replacement. I keep thinking how dumb I was. I didn’t hold the railing as I went downstairs and landed full-force on my knee, tearing out every major ligament. Now there is some titanium thing in there, a long row of metal staples, and standing on that leg is painful, almost as painful as bending it.
All day today, perhaps to distract myself from the pain, I have been thinking about the Brown decision. This hospital makes me think of how much change I have seen in my lifetime. Most of the change is because of the Brown decision. I look around, and both the staff and the patients are a mini-UN. My main physical therapist is a statuesque, beautiful black woman. I endured my training today on the same large mat with a young black man suffering a brain injury. His trainer was a young white woman with infinite patience and humor.
I was born in 1938 in Houston. I was third of eight children. We attended the same public schools, had the same teachers, used the same textbooks. Our school experiences and outcomes were so different that I can’t take seriously those economists who insist that teachers have a dramatic and uniform impact on all children in their classroom.
All of my classmates and teachers were white, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The only black people I knew worked in menial jobs. They were cooks, maids, manual workers. In the supermarket, there were different drinking fountains, one marked “white,” the other “colored.” The public buses were racially divided; a movable metal marker said “colored,” and all black people rode in the rear, behind the marker.
Houston was a very conservative Southern city. The elected school board was often dominated after World War II by the John Birch Society and the Minute Women, who felt sure that the Communists had infiltrated almost every organization, and we had to be prepared for a Soviet invasion. When some teachers innocently suggested an essay contest for students about the new United Nations, the school board felt certain that Reds and pinkoes had infiltrated the school.
Race was a forbidden subject too. When the district was looking for a new superintendent, one of the leading candidates was disqualified when the press revealed that he belonged to the Urban League in his hometown on the west coast! Any organization that advocated racial equality was considered by our officials to be Communist-dominated. Certain Southern racist customs were common in Houston. If a black person entered a white person’s home, it was only through the back door. Deference was required. When I think of how things were, I cringe with embarrassment and shame.
I didn’t have any black friends, so I can’t tell you how they reacted to the pervasive insults based on nothing more than their color. They must have felt humiliated every day.
The Brown decision was released on May 17,1954. The school board responded by saying they would never desegregate. They thought they could defer compliance forever. I was a high school sophomore. I remember I went to see the high school principal to ask him why we were defying the Supreme Court. He patiently tried to explain why it was best to leave matters like this alone. Feelings ran too high. From that time forward, I became intrigued with school politics, especially controversies. My first term paper in college was about the extremists who ran the Houston schools and spied on teachers to see if they were loyal to America. In college, I wrote many papers about the struggle for desegregation. I remember the politicians across the South who loudly declared that they would comply with the Brown decision but only if families had choice. Of course, they expected that white children would still go to white schools, and black children would stay in traditional schools (there was always the fear and coercion factor).
So, from my hospital bed, many years later, I have three observations about the Brown decision. First, our own federal government took the decision very seriously in the mid-1960s and demanded actual integration, not just “free choice,” which they knew would produce no change. As conservative appointees were added to the Supreme Court, the federal courts lost heart. Now, irony of ironies, “choice” is supposed to be a “civil rights issue,” but the reality is that choice promotes separation and segregation. Now, we are supposed to believe that segregated charter schools are a great innovation.
Second, we cannot continue to tolerate the extreme educational and residential segregation that has become commonplace. It bodes ill for the future of our society to permit such extremes of economic and social inequality.
Third, the Brown decision may have been abandoned by the federal courts and the federal government—for now—but it has nonetheless had a profound effect on American society. People of African descent are no longer confined to menial jobs. There is a black President, there are black CEOs. In every walk of life, we expect to see a racially and ethnically integrated workplace.
But that’s not enough. We must persevere until black and white and other children live and learn together. We must persevere until there are no racial ghettoes. The American Dream deserves another chance. Fair housing. Equality of educational opportunity. A fair chance at a good life. It is not out of our reach unless we give up. We must not give up. We must make it work for all.