The Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education was arguably the most important decision of the Supreme Court in the 20th century. It was delivered May 17, 1954, 60 years ago, and it changed life in America forever.

Previous to Brown v. Board of Education, 17 states required schools within their borders to be segregated by race, and many other states allowed racial segregation at the discretion of local school districts. The Supreme Court decision ordered an end to all schools that were officially segregated by race.

It took years for the segregated states to accept de jure integration, and many schools remain segregated today as a result of local housing patterns or of calculated obfuscation by state education departments.

Nevertheless, the struggle for the United States to become "one nation, indivisible" took a giant leap forward 60 years ago at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

The vote was unanimous, but that took a lot of hard political work by Earl Warren, newly appointed to the post of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He felt that only a unanimous decision would show the nation that racial integration in the public schools was the only way forward. Although there was no real question that a majority of the court was going to vote against school segregation, a few justices wondered whether the Supreme Court should play such an activist role, whether the court should get so far out in front of the nation.

Warren felt that a dissenting opinion on this issue would be disastrous. Those resisting integration in the segregated states would be able to use the very words of the dissenters to undermine the authority of the majority on the question, and impede the implementation of the court's majority opinion.

In the end, all justices supported their new Chief Justice. The vote was unanimous and Brown v. Board of Education -- the revolutionary child of lawyer Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP -- brought a finish to state and local laws protecting school segregation.

One of the strongest arguments for ending racial segregation was the brief put forward by Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mamie, as expert witnesses. They had conducted a series of tests on the impact of school segregation on the self-image of black children in segregated schools. Using black and white toy dolls as props, the couple had the children describe their feelings about being black or white. The results showed convincingly that black children had absorbed the negative attitudes toward African Americans that segregation nurtured.

The strongest policy statement to emanate from the Brown v. Board of Education court case was crystal clear: "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." That finding sprang from the Clarks' brief.

Little by little -- and at times with great difficulty -- school districts yielded to school integration, and eventually the lives of young Americans in states where segregation had been practiced became much different from the lives of their parents.

But the price of equality, like the price of liberty, is eternal vigilance.

According to a report titled New York State's Extreme School Segregation from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, "New York has the most segregated schools in the country."

The report finds that during the last two decades, education leaders have developed no sufficient diversity-focused policies and that has led to persistent or even increasing segregation.

60 years after Brown we must reduce racial isolation and demand that resources are shared equally in our city. The next generation is relying on us to fulfill the promise of that most important of decisions in 1954.