The historic Supreme Court decision in 1954 may have desegregated schools, but problems persist for blacks in public education. In our first local Town Hall of the NBC Learn "Finishing the Dream" series, community leaders in Chicago talk to students about what they see as an educational crisis in Chicago.
Did the Brown Decision Really End School Segregation?
LESTER HOLT: In 1954, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that changed the face of education across this country, or did it? Brown versus Board of Education simply put, made school segregation illegal. But, for many cities, especially in Chicago, segregation continued decades after that historic decision.
NORMA QUARLES, NBC NEWS: [IN CLIP] Chicago, like many other northern cities, has resisted integration despite the Brown decision. Today, the federal government calls Chicago schools the most segregated in the country. Two thirds of all elementary school children attend all black, all white, or all Hispanic schools. As black and Hispanic populations increased over the years, many whites fled their ethnic neighborhoods, leaving too few whites to integrate the schools easily. The few attempts to integrate schools even partially resulted in white protests. Fifteen years ago, the school board commissioned an integration plan, but it ignored the recommendations. The plan’s chief author was sociologist Dr. Philip Hauser.
DR. PHILIP HAUSER, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: The school board was part of the white resistance, just as City Hall has been part of the white resistance. The impact of the Brown decision has been about zero. Chicago might just as well have been on another planet.
MARION BROOKS: Doctor Adams, peoples still make a claim like that sometimes in this city and in many others in the country; what are your thoughts?
DR. CAROL ADAMS, C.E.O. DUSABLE MUSEUM: Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and I was living there when this thing happened, Brown versus Topeka, Kansas Board of Education. Here, the neighborhoods were extremely segregated. You weren’t gonna get school desegregation by moving a few black kids that you carefully creamed off the top to a few schools and move the resources disproportionately to a few schools – which still occurs today – and not invest in the appropriate education of the kids in schools throughout all the communities.
MARION BROOKS: Doctor Worrill, what do you think?
DR. CONRAD WORRILL, EDUCATOR AND ACTIVIST: Well, I think it’s important for the young people to understand where Brown versus Board of Education came from historically: 1896 was Plessy versus Ferguson, and that was a law created to bring into existence legal segregation under the law. So, from 1896 to 1954 there were people working to change this law. And one of the leaders of this movement was Thurgood Marshall.
THURGOOD MARSHALL, NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND: [IN CLIP] We are committed to removing all state barriers to laws that would prevent integration …
WORRILL: And many, many lawsuits were filed in 1940, and early 1950, to get to the Supreme Court in 1954. So, the lesson of this is the role that black lawyers played to challenge this evil segregation under the law that existed in the United States.
LESTER HOLT: Doctor Gill, are we still feeling a legacy of those days?
DR. CHANDRA GILL: You know what's striking to me is the fact that Doctor King suggested you can legislate policy but you can’t legislate attitudes. And what’s very relevant about this for me empirically is why was Brown v. Board even necessary? The fact that there were individuals who continued to see African-American, black folks, as inferior. You have white people thinking that they are superior just because they are white and you have black people think they are inferior just because they are black – that makes both people sick.
LESTER HOLT: We want to get a question from the audience, young man standing here.
DINJONTE TILLMAN: Hello, my name is Dinjonte Tillman. I’m a freshman at DePaul University. And I was wondering, how do we respectfully hold our teachers and councilors accountable for preparing us for college socially as well as educationally?
LESTER HOLT: Do you want to try that?
DR.ADAMS: Well, sure, I would love to try that, because it’s accountability has to happen across the board. Not just with your teachers, with your families, right in your homes. There was a desire on the part of black people to educate and to make certain that people had this. We longed for it because there was a day when it was forbidden for us. And people have forgotten that. And so we have to return to that desire, to that ethic. we’ve got a crisis in our schools right here in Chicago; that’s a top-down crisis. And unless we change that top, nothing is going to happen to change what’s going on in our schools.
MARION BROOKS: Let’s get another question from our audience member.
BRIA GRIFFITH: Hi, my name is Bria Griffith and I’m a junior at Morgan Park Academy. And I just wanted to know, do you think much progress has been since the Brown versus Board of Education decision?
FINNEY: No, no.
REVEREND JANETTE WILSON: Well, I think a lot of progress has been made, but I think a lot needs to be made. And I think that Brown was not just about desegregating public education. It was about a demand for equal resources for our schools. Today, in the twenty-first century, you do not have the technology in all of our schools, you do not have the supports in all of our schools that you see in suburban school district around the country that are public schools. You don’t have the kind of resources that some of the charter schools are getting. And so you don’t have the economic resources assigned to certain schools where the majority of our children go. You cannot desegregate schools when you don’t desegregate neighborhoods.
DR. GILL: I want to say this because it is very--
FINNEY: Let me just kind of interject something. It seems to me that we got a couple of things. One is the whole idea about public schools. The schools that the black kids were going to were unequal with resources. But then you got the other issue over here, which is the violence that we have in the community. Because the schools and the communities in which the schools are in are so violent that it is very difficult for any education to take place anyway. And then at least ten to fifteen percent of the kids that are in school have no help when they get home because there’s no family there, there’s no family structure there, there’s no support there. Somebody said a long time ago that it takes a whole village to raise a child. It takes a whole village to educate a child. And if the village is not prepared to go the next step and that is to make sure that that home environment in which that kid is in is supportive of the school, once the kid gets out, I don’t care what the teacher does. If the kids are not going to learn at the level they need to learn.
WASHINGTON — Poor, black and Hispanic children are becoming increasingly isolated from their white, affluent peers in the nation's public schools, according to new federal data released Tuesday, 62 years after the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools are "inherently unequal" and therefore unconstitutional.