It was an evening of mighty remembrance, of old war horses, many leaning almost beatifically on their canes -- and of Hollywood star power.
With the books about the anniversary now written and the documentaries surrounding the epochal event shown, it also seemed, at long last, time to celebrate. And so last night a glittering crowd sat inside Constitution Hall commemorating Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that, 50 years ago, upended legal school segregation in America. (It was hardly lost on many that Constitution Hall itself had once barred blacks -- Marian Anderson, Hazel Scott -- from performing on its stage.)
There was music -- Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Chorale. There were activists -- Dick Gregory, ailing, stalwart, whispering anew about conspiracies; Dorothy Height, in lovely blue and, of course, the hat as well; Julian Bond, who manages to float both regally and humbly through such events; and, among others, the hosts, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, a tandem whose activism goes back to Paul Robeson, to sleeping in and fussing about those segregated hotels.
Davis, alongside his wife on the podium, allowed as how he and Dee have always agreed about three of the most significant memories in their lives: "Our wedding, when Jackie Robinson hit his first home run in the majors, and the Brown school decision."
Grainy film footage of segregated schools -- colored children peering so close to books, as if suffering from bad sight, when, in reality, it was due to the ill-lit classrooms -- brought a hush over the audience.
Bill Cosby was in high school in Philadelphia when the May 17, 1954, decision came down. "The glory for me was that these men were going up against white men," Cosby recalled in an interview, talking of Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter and the NAACP legal team. "This was for me Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. But we were not talking about hitting a ball. We were talking about brains. Because it always came down to 'could we think?' " said Cosby, one of the honorees in an evening sponsored by Howard University, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Gregory loved the resoluteness of the court decision. "They didn't say, 'Maybe it won't work.' They said, 'This is the decision.' So, legally, that one shackle was removed." Gregory, in a Hickey Freeman tux, was sporting a couple of bandages on his forehead: He'd taken a tumble jogging in Rock Creek Park. "We've gone from slavery to Secretary of State Colin Powell," he said, in a voice full of awe. Then he started whispering about CIA-doings in the White House, turning to and fro in his patent-leather shoes, grinning, waving: at Dorothy Height, at Earl Graves, the magazine publisher and another of the night's honorees; at people he squinted to remember.
The Brown decision was hardly the end-all of segregation in America. Years would pass before teeth were put into the law, and mean and scary things would happen in places like Little Rock and Boston that would put the decision to the test.
"We had been in this country long enough that even though we knew we finally had the law on our side," said Hank Aaron, the man who overtook Babe Ruth's home run record, "we realized there were still roads to travel. I myself was excited in 1954, but knew we still had a ways to go." Aaron looked around during the reception, and the legend found himself enthralled. "To be here with all these people you read about . . . "
The sheer magic of the ruling, the overwhelming gritty power of it -- a young, slender Thurgood Marshall in sepia-toned footage climbing the Supreme Court steps, the banner headlines on the morning after -- was brought home to those in attendance last night.
"I get goose bumps just thinking about the decision," actress Cicely Tyson said, sitting backstage. "I have always been of the opinion that nothing separate is equal. Of course we're still dealing with separatism in some fashion 50 years later. And to find myself saying that makes me cringe."
Actor Steve Harris, who was born 11 years after the Brown decision, said, "I don't think that they teach the emotion of that ruling in schools, how it knocked down walls and then spread out from there." Harris, one of the stars of the television drama "The Practice," said, "You realize how people now think, 'Well, that made perfect sense.' But at the time it wasn't, 'Oh, that makes perfect sense.' "