Civil rights lawyer, author Bell questions efficacy of 1954 Supreme Court ruling
Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Feb. 7
Civil rights lawyer and author Derrick Bell yesterday called the landmark school desegregation decision Brown vs. Board of Education a symbolic victory that produced little substantive change for blacks.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordered America’s public schools desegregated “with all deliberate speed.” It was hailed as a way to provide quality education to black Americans, who, at the time, were schooled mostly in substandard facilities with books and supplies discarded from white districts.
Yesterday, at a University of Pittsburgh Law School symposium examining the impact of “Brown,” Bell said the ruling has been “rendered legally irrelevant” and questioned if society should ever have called for its passage.
“What if Brown vs. Board had never have happened?” he said. “Things are not that much different than they were 50 years ago.”
Research shows public schools today continue to be just as segregated by race and class, he said, and public resources and policies have never fully been shifted to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
A half-century ago, said Bell, there was sufficient momentum in other civil rights initiatives to open up society.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, started a year before “Brown,” proved that economic protest could work. The boycott also launched the national prominence of Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership led to legal gains in housing and employment.
Passed in 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson called for separate but equal facilities for black and whites, including public education.
The decision stood for 60 years before Brown, and, “I wonder what would have happened if we had enforced the equal part, and not the separate,” said Bell, a Hill District native who earned his law degree from Pitt.
In the wake of “Brown,” many whites formed campaigns of massive resistance while hundreds of black schools closed and thousands of black teachers and administrators were fired.
Some white parents “could run and hide their children in white schools, private or suburban, that court orders could not reach,” said Bell.
Today, rather than continue to seek symbolic victories to remedy racial injustices, Bell suggests communities organize, build coalitions across racial lines and “do something.”