Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that declared segregation in the nation's public schools to be unconstitutional. To mark the occasion, the NAACP is sponsoring two events tomorrow: an education summit in Topeka, Kan., and a gala at Washington's Constitution Hall. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume spoke with staff writer Nancy Trejos about the legacy of Brown.
Q You began school in Turners Station, Md., about three months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. What was it like to be a student at that time?
A The tragedy of the era was that compliance was not mandated as quickly as it should have been by the federal government. In fact, noncompliance became the way of the day. . . . I continued to be bused past a white school through first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade to inferior black schools. I didn't have a white student in my class until the eighth grade. I would suspect that it wasn't just something that was happening in Baltimore County, which is where Turners Station is. I suspect it was happening everywhere. . . . It took a long time, but the one significant note about Brown is, we will never go back to the America that existed prior to 1954, and that is a good thing.
What is the legacy of Brown? What successes have come out of it?
Following that decision, the concept of Brown was applied to everything, whether it was the sports arena or the entertainment arena, whether it was day care or educational opportunities in colleges. So many barriers began to fall away because they could not cling to the idea that separate-but-equal made sense.
What more needs to be done?
The legacy of Brown is in part the guarantee of equal educational opportunity. . . . Too many of our public schools are overcrowded and ill-equipped and, in some instances, drugs are more available than textbooks -- and too many young people are promoted because of age or size. They're not receiving equal educational opportunity. In many respects, they're receiving certificates of attendance rather than real high school diplomas. It cries out for national attention. It's incumbent on parents and students . . . but it's also incumbent on the government to make sure that there are adequate resources that are available for all students to be able to succeed.
The Brown decision was significant no matter how we look at it or how we slice it. It's probably the most significant piece of jurisprudence of the 20th century. But we would really fail the architects of those decisions and the people who brought the cases that ultimately made it to court if we were to assume there's nothing else left to do.
I believe that the federal, state and local education agencies, as well as those charged with monitoring segregation orders, must reexamine the effects of re-segregation in our schools and a lack of resources and adequate funding and, out of that, push for specific definitions of educational equity and compliance. This issue of compliance is crucial. If you've got school districts that want to comply, that's one thing. If you've got school districts that can't comply because of lack of resources, that's another thing.
Many public schools are still struggling to close the academic achievement gap that exists between minority students and their white classmates. How do you think that gap can be closed?
Clearly, the government has got to provide funding. The government has got to provide the tangible resources so that schools don't fall apart. . . . There is also a responsibility that sits on the backs of parents and students, and that is to not allow the unequal nature of funding to serve as an insurmountable hurdle.