A Reflection from Sherrilyn Ifill

May 17th marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the constitutional moment that compelled our country to reckon with its history and confront the unfulfilled promise of equality first articulated in our founding documents.

Sherrilyn IfillBrown v. Board literally changed America. It is a mid-20th century course correction that ushered in a modern America that must grapple honestly with the promise of equality and opportunity for all of its citizens.  At its core Brown marks the beginning of the end of legal apartheid in this country.  This would be enough to celebrate. But Brown is also a powerful example of how change can happen and the important role that law plays in shaping the very character of our country.

Brown was the culmination of a strategy first conceived of by the brilliant, visionary Howard Law Dean and scholar Charles Hamilton Houston and counsel to the NAACP.  With his protégée Thurgood Marshall (who went on to become the first Director-Counsel of NAACP LDF), Houston began challenging Jim Crow in education in 1935 with a successful challenge to racial segregation at the University of Maryland School of Law. They moved through the South, challenging Jim Crow in graduate schools and law schools before ending up where they always wanted to be:  in the United States Supreme Court with a dream team of lawyers arguing that segregation in K-12 education violates the United States Constitution.

Their argument was clear. The 14th amendment to the Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws. Racial segregation violates that principle. The lawyers marshalled expert witnesses to prove what most of us take for granted today, that state-enforced racial segregation in education “deprives [black children] of equal status in the school community….destroys their self-respect, denies them full opportunity for democratic social development [and]…. stamps [them] with a badge of inferiority.”[1]   Although this conclusion never made it into the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s worth noting that Brown’s star expert, Dr. Kenneth Clark had also warned that segregation “twisted the personality development of white children.”[2] 

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren issued the powerful statement about education that resonates just as poignantly today:

Today education is the most important function of state and local governments….It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him adjust normally to his environment. In these days it is doubtful that any child can be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”[3]

Charles Hamilton HoustonWithin 15 years of the Court’s decision in Brown, segregation had been declared illegal in almost every aspect of American life, from the school house, to swimming pools and golf courses, to public transportation and housing. These changes were not brought about by lawyers alone.  The broad civil rights movement that began the year after Brown issued a powerful demand for full citizenship for blacks throughout the south.  But Brown deployed our nation’s most coveted assets — our Constitution and the rule of law — to articulate and enforce the principle of equality.

Of course, Brown was no magic bullet for the problems of race and inequality that have plagued our nation since its beginning. We proudly celebrate Brown even as we recognize the ongoing, difficult challenges we face today not only in education, but in criminal justice, in economic opportunity and at the ballot box.  The ongoing challenge to the free and unfettered right to vote in jurisdictions throughout this country is perhaps the most glaring example of the need for strong civil rights advocacy and litigation. At its core, civil rights work is the work of democracy maintenance.  As citizens of this country, it is work in which we all have a part to play and which will continue so long as opportunity and justice remain elusive for any segment of our society. 

Without question, we are still in the fight.  All over this country, LDF continues to fight for quality education for the most marginalized children. We fight against school discipline policies that push out and brand children as young as age 4.  We advocate for school funding, new facilities and certified teachers for all school children. We stand by our decades-long commitment to quality public education as the conduit to opportunity, and to ensuring access to quality, affordable higher education. 

Integrated SchoolsBecause we recognize the still-unfulfilled promise of Brown in education, this season is also one for reflection and renewed strategic thinking.  We don’t shy away from the tough questions.  But we know that the challenges confronting America in its education system were not created by Brown.  To the contrary, it was the decades-long, relentless, expensive, short-sighted and sometimes violent resistance to Brown that first derailed what could have been a peaceful and efficient transformation to a new integrated public education system that might have become the best in the world. 

And so we celebrate the promise of Brown.  Most of all, we salute the vision, courage, intellectual heft and hard work of the lawyers who conceived, developed and executed the plan to dismantle “separate but equal” in American life. These men and women – Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood Robinson, James Nabrit, Jr., Oliver Hill, Robert CarterJack Greenberg, Lou Redding and Constance Baker Motley among others, stand as an inspiration and as a challenge to LDF lawyers today. Their journey provides a powerful example of how change happens. The 20 year Brown strategy shows us how patience, vision, intellectual rigor, and relentless focus by a small band of courageous lawyers changed an entire country.

We hope that every American will join with us in commemorating Brown at 60.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill

[1] Oral argument in Briggs v. Elliott, December 9, 1952, reproduced in Brown v. Board of Education:  The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court, ed. Leon Friedman (New Press, 1969) at p. 38.

[2] The Integrationist in The Nat Hentoff Reader (DaCapo 2001) at p. 165.

[3] 347 U.S. at 493.