Judge William D. Missouri is a native of the District. He attended public schools in Dalzell, S.C. , where he had to walk 10 miles to school because he wasn't allowed to attend his neighborhood school. He served in the Air Force before graduating from Bowie State and the University of Maryland Law School. He is the chief administrative judge of Maryland's 7th Circuit, which includes Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties. This is adapted by Missouri from an article he published in "Justice Matters," a legal publication.
No celebration could ever match the significance of the impact Brown v. Board of Education has had upon life in America.
Prior to the Brown decision, America legally operated under the fiction announced by the United States Supreme Court in 1896. The legal fiction referred to is the "separate but equal" doctrine established by the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. It was under this supposedly fair doctrine that segregation, rooted in post-Reconstruction-era laws, solidified its hold on the life of recently freed slaves. This was particularly true throughout the former States of the Confederacy. Those states seemed to relish in taking the doctrine of "separate but equal" to its natural and probable unequal consequences.
I was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Sumter County, South Carolina. I was part of a society that practiced segregation. However, if I was unaware of how segregation was practiced in Washington, D.C., I cannot imagine it being as confining or as abhorrent as the form practiced in South Carolina, where I spent my early school years.
My first day of school, at age 7, came after a walk of about 10 miles. My grandmother held me out of school until I reached the age of 7 because of the great distance all of the African-American children in Sumter County District No. 2 had to walk to attend the high school I ultimately graduated from.
Ebenezer High School, which served grades 1 to 12, was located about 10 miles from our home. Walking 10 miles was no picnic, and after six months of doing this my grandmother decided that I could not keep up with the big kids, so she re-enrolled me in a school only three miles away from the house. The disheartening aspect of my early school years was watching the white kids pass by, in their new school bus, as we walked to school. In fact, one of their school bus routes came within a stone's throw of our house. I could see the kids on the bus laughing and talking as the driver sped by.
During those years, I often heard the adults discussing segregation and how we were supposed to receive equal treatment under the law. Although I was unaware of what Plessy v. Ferguson was, I knew that there seemed to be a lawful basis, wrong lawful basis in my mind, for treating African Americans differently than whites. This disparate treatment was particularly galling to me when my grandmother would jerk my hand from a water fountain because it was labeled "white only."
My first movie experience was in the Lyric Theatre, which catered only to blacks. If I wanted to go to one of the other movie houses I had to sit upstairs in the balcony.
The impact of Brown on life in America in general, and for me in particular, was the opening of educational opportunities that were not present before. I am pleased that my children have not experienced the type of segregation that I grew up with, but I am displeased that they do not fully appreciate the history that led to the welcoming of the Brown decision.
Prior to Brown, there were many institutions that excluded African Americans and other minorities from their ranks. Subsequent to Brown the doors to educational institutions opened, slowly, but they did open. For the opening of doors and the ability to participate in activities previously barred to them, African Americans should be forever grateful, and therefore should mark the Brown anniversary as a major holiday.
But I lament what I consider a failure to take advantage of the opportunities provided as a result of Brown. That failure by a significant number of blacks, especially young males, has led to "excuse making" for not doing well in society. My children tell me of their hurt feelings when certain peers call them "bougie" because they study hard and get good grades. This type of attitude is one hundred and eighty degrees from the attitudes and views held by most African Americans prior to Brown.