Remembering the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

May 17 marked the 66th anniversary of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education.

The Brown decision addressed consolidated issues from four different cases — in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware and Virginia — involving racial segregation.

The unanimous opinion of the court was written by Earl Warren, Republican President
Dwight Eisenhower’s newly appointed chief justice. The court declared that forced segregation of children in public schools violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and was, therefore, unconstitutional.

But Brown is about much more than schools. It was a death knell for legal apartheid in the United States, originally sanctioned in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and codified in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Plessy vs. Ferguson

The Brown decision established unequivocally that African Americans had equal rights in America. While the Supreme Court decides what the law is, it can’t actually enforce the law. The Court’s decisions often follow public opinion rather than lead it. But its decisions can empower and legitimatize, for better or for worse.

In 1896, the Supreme Court took up Plessy v. Ferguson, which involved a dispute over segregated train transportation in Louisiana.

Homer Plessy, a fair-skinned African American man who could “pass” for white, purchased a first-class ticket and had taken his seat in a Whites only train car. When he refused to take a seat in the “dirt car” reserved for Blacks, he was arrested and jailed.

A lonely voice

The Supreme Court ruled that separate accommodations on trains and in other facilities was legal, provided that the accommodations were substantially equal. Hence, the legal apartheid of race and White supremacy in America was born.

The decision was met with a stirring dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner, who argued that the “arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with … the equality before the law established by the Constitution.”

Harlan was a lonely voice at the time. The infamous “Compromise of 1877” had already taken place, withdrawing federal troops from the South and bringing Reconstruction to an end. The Civil Rights cases of 1883 had effectively nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the terrorist campaigns of the Ku Klux Klan effectively squelched the brief era of freedom in the South after the Civil War.

The Shelby decision

In the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Court, by a 5-4 vote (with five right-wing justices in the majority), gutted the Voting Rights Act. The scandalous decision by Chief Justice John Roberts overturned the reauthorization of the Act by Congress, arguing that the country “has changed” and that racial discrimination in voting was no longer a problem in the South.

The shortsighted ruling in Shelby has had broad implications. Across the South, and increasingly in the rest of the country, Republicans passed new restrictions on voting limiting early voting, purging voter rolls, requiring strict voter ID laws, closing polling places — all disproportionately impacting minority voters.

Partisan gerrymandering soon followed, and today, opposition even to voting by mail has emerged. The Shelby decision has given renewed energy to the efforts to roll back advances made during the Civil Rights era.

In the midst of the current pandemic and the looming depression, the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education has passed without much notice. But we should never forget how historic that decision was and is.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is president and CEO of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

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