Happy Birthday to Brown

May 17 marks the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Like so many Black families, mine spent the spring of 1954 waiting anxiously for news of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case. My father and I talked about it and what it would mean for my future and the future of millions of other Black children who were attending segregated but unequal Black schools. Every morning, he would say, “Maybe it’s going to be today!” He died the week before Brown was decided, without seeing the headlines blaring in large type in newspapers across the country the following day:




The transforming decision holding that the doctrine of “separate but equal” in public education was unconstitutional set into motion a cascade of other challenges to Jim Crow laws that changed America. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) were the towering architects of the Brown case, with a brilliant team led by LDF Founder Thurgood Marshall that included Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Robert Carter, Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson III, Louis Redding, Charles and John Scott, Harold Boulware, James Nabrit Jr., and George E. C. Hayes. LDF says today: “The legal victory in Brown did not transform the country overnight, and much work remains. But striking down segregation in the nation’s public schools provided a major catalyst for the civil rights movement, making possible advances in desegregating housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher education. The decision gave hope to millions of Americans by permanently discrediting the legal rationale underpinning the racial caste system that had been endorsed or accepted by governments at all levels since the end of the nineteenth century. And its impact has been felt by every American.”

As they honor this year’s anniversary with a series of special events, LDF also says: “Brown v. Board was a defining moment for our country and its future. Now, at 70 years past, we celebrate Brown’s incalculable legacy and continue the transformative work to make education accessible and equitable for all . . . Reigniting and realizing Brown’s promise requires continued action. As we face threats to truthful, inclusive education, attacks on diversity, and the dismantling of race-conscious admissions programs, we must act diligently to carry forth Brown’s true intent to advance equal educational opportunities. Brown gave way to opportunity and promise. Brown was just the beginning.” 

Seventy years after the ruling, even school segregation itself has never left the headlines. Earlier this month Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project launched the Segregation Explorer, an interactive website providing data on segregation trends across the United States. Its release coincided with a new report from researchers at Stanford and the University of Southern California showing the steady rise in racial and economic segregation among schools in large school districts over the past 30 years. The report analyzed data from U.S. public schools going back to 1967, and found segregation between White and Black students has increased by 64 percent since 1988 in the 100 largest districts, and segregation by economic status has increased by about 50 percent since 1991—much of that in the last 15 years. The researchers also reemphasize that school segregation “is strongly associated with achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups, especially the rate at which achievement gaps widen during school.” As the faculty director of the Educational Opportunity Project, Dr. Sean Reardon, summed up the research: “School segregation levels are high, troubling, and rising in large districts. These findings should sound an alarm for educators and policymakers.”

LDF also notes that more than 200 school desegregation cases remain open on federal court dockets. On many fronts, Brown was indeed just the beginning. But once again, this is a time to stay vigilant and double down on urgently needed next steps even as it is also a time to celebrate the start of transforming change. As Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, said: “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”