When police arrested a black man named Gardner Bishop in 1947 for letting his daughter sit on a swing in one Washington's "whites only" playgrounds, Bishop did not argue. He did not even argue when he was arrested for walking down Michigan Avenue, then a "white section" of the nation's capital.
But when his daughter's segregated Browne Junior High School became so overcrowded that students went to classes in three shifts while whites in a nearby school studied in half-empty classrooms, Gardner Bishop got angry and began to act.
Twenty-five years ago today, the fruits of his action burst forth in the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in the nation's schools and doomed it in every other aspect of American life.
Bishop's case and four others, all known now under the name of a case from Topeka, Kan., "Brown vs. Board of Education," sent an upheaval through American society and were hailed as a victory for civil rights.
But a quarter-century later, the legacy of that decision is a mixture of puzzlement, confusion and irony in the minds of more than a dozen persons who played key roles in fighting for Brown in the early '50s
The irony for Gardner Bishop is that his fight was not with whites, but with middle-class blacks when he began his battle.
Bishop started a student strike, he recalls now, when middle-class black school officials would not let his child transfer from her overcrowded school because she was only a barber's daughter.
For many of the activists who saw in Brown the key to better schools that would help poor blacks climb the social and economic ladder, the 25 years since Brown have been marked by disappointment. Many blacks who worked for Brown feel its major accomplishment may have been to allow the upward movement of just enough middle-class blacks to blind whites to the nation's remaining racial injustices.
As a result, many of the '50s activists who sought the Brown decision fear it has masked the continued warehousing of the poor black majority in public housing, bad schools and a culture of welfare.
In addition, many who saw Brown as the salvation for blacks 25 years ago now believe it has widened the gulf between middle-class and poor blacks. They believe that middle-class blacks, who move fairly freely in the white world, have lost a feeling of common destiny with underprivileged blacks who feel less accepted.
Worst of all for blacks who thought Brown was the educational answer 25 years ago is the sight of the nation's urban, largely black public school systems, which many argue are worse now than when they were segregated.
"It's time for a reexamination of the 25 years' experience," said Herbert O. Reid Sr., a junior professor of law at Howard University in the early 1950s who helped prepare the Brown case for the Supreme Court.
" . . . I know damn well," Reid said, "that education in the public schools is worse than it was in 1954. We didn't have people coming out of high school then who couldn't read. . . .
Reid said blacks may have been fooled for the past 25 years into believing that the right racial mix, the right percentage of blacks and whites in the classroom, would guarantee a good education.
Instead, he said, the focus on racial percentages has taken valuable attention away from the question of what black children have or have not been learning in the classroom.
"The theory of integration is perfectly sound," said James Nabrit, former president of Howard and dean of the Howard Law School in the early '50s when the school was a brain trust for black lawyers.
"Segregation is unconstitutional. But the fact that schools are not segregated does not mean that you are going to have good schools. We have learned that lesson. But if we all live in the same community and schools are not good then we are going to have bad schools together.
"What I was doing," said Nabrit, who represented the District's black parents and children before the Supreme Court "is to give [a black person] the right to move about the country with the same rights as anybody else, to work, live, go to school, have family . . . and enjoy himself to the extent that he is able to afford it.
"[We were not trying] to pick up [the black] and put him in the lap of ease. He is as responsible for his schools and his community as the white man . . . and if he is dissatisfied with the city schools blacks can go to the suburban schools."
Many blacks involved with the Brown decision say they had not foreseen such major social changes in the coming decades as the accelerating exodus of whites-and some middleclass black-to the suburbs, although the movement had begun before 1954.
"I don't want anyone to say desegregation did this," said Burma Whitted, who helped spearhead the fight for desegregation.
"Integration did what it set out to do. However, the District changed, maybe because of Brown, and it's almost all black, the schools are all black . . . so what has happened doesn't have anything to do with integration. We have an all-black school system . . . the problem is in there somewhere. . . ."
Whites who fought for the Brown decision in the '50s, however, view the quarter-century since then largely as a period of tremendous gains for blacks.
Whites and some blacks point to ever-increasing black political strength which has produced black officeholders at almost every level of local, state and federal government, including congressmen, a senator, a Supreme Court justice, members of the president's cabinet and mayors of many of the nation's major cities.
Many whites also point to the growing black middle class and the enormous economic opportunities open to talented blacks with a good education.
"People say the civil rights movement today is a disappointment, it's dead," said Joe Rauh, a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action. "On the contrary I think we are doing more for civil rights today than we ever were. But we've solved the easy problems, the obvious ones. The city is legally integrated as opposed to being practically and economically integrated."
Walter Tobriner, a white member of District of Columbia Board of Education at the time of the Brown decision and later a District commissioner, said he believes there is no question that the Brown decision has helped more black children to have a better education. He feels that was the purpose of the decision.
"The problem now," Tobriner said, "is social integration. I think the problem will be solved in time. It's largely due to economics . . . I don't think most whites harbor any feelings of distaste for blacks today because of color alone. I think that form of hatred has disappeared to a great extent. I think what aversion remains, as far as blacks are concerned, is largely due to a differential in the cultural situation. And I think as soon as a larger middle class of blacks is formed the aversion will disappear."
But many blacks believe it is now harder for talented young blacks to get a good education than it was before the Brown decision. They point to poor schools in the cities, where most blacks live, and think the highly visible social, economic and political gains by middle-class blacks may have left many young blacks unconvinced of the need for hard work and personal sacrifice.
In addition to ending segregation in schools, the 1954 decision waved a red flag at segregation in restaurants, in housing and at baseball games in now demolished Griffith Stadium on Georgia Avenue. Segregation in housing had been outlawed in 1947. And a June 1953 decision ordered restaurants in the District to serve blacks. But neither rulings had much immediate effect.
It took the Brown decision to begin the wholesale mixing of blacks and whites in public.
"In 1954 it would be fair to say," said Joe Rauh, "that Washington was as segregated as any other southern town . . . the big break in the dike was school desegregation."
"Anybody like these young people we've got around here now," said 70-year-old Gardner Bishop, "can't realize the whole impact of [segregation]. It's a demeaning thing. It makes you feel like you're nobody. It makes you stand and take off your hat to go in a men's store because you want to be served . . . It makes you feel like you ain't nothing. That's the meaning of it. And you're mad on the inside because of it. It means you want to grab every white woman you see and whip her butt, did you know that? And the worst part of it is some [blacks] did."
"Segregation was not only white against black but it was also upper class black against the lower-class [black]," said Bishop, his eyes suddenly watery. "Don't you understand. We were on the bottom shelf. I'm black and I'm poor so I'm segregated against twice."
In 1947, convinced that Washington's black middle-class leadership was turning blind eyes to conditions among the city's lower-income black majority, Bishop organized a demonstration protesting overcrowding in the black schools.
He was joined by some middle-class blacks, including Burma Whitted, then secretary of the local Jack and Jill Club, a social club for the children fo black professionals.
But he remained suspicious of upper-class blacks, and of such organizations as the National Association for Advancement of Colored People.
Convinced that the NAACP was a "social group," he never permitted the organization to join the desegregation suit he eventually launched. The district of Columbia case was the onlyy one of five incorporated in Brown vs. Board of Education that did not involve the NAACP.
" . . . At first the fight was not against segregation," Bishop recalls, "it was against the Negro school officials who would not let us [poor blacks] transfer our children from Browne to Banneker or any other junior high unless you were a big nigger. . . If you didn't have the right pull your children stayed right there in the swamp."
In 1949 directed by an attorney named Charles Houston, Bishop created a confrontation by taking several black children, including Spottswood Bolling-whose name later appeared on the case-to the all-white Sousa Junior High School on the first day of classes in September.
Armed with "enough knives to open a butcher shop," Bishop and other black parents stood waiting for the school doors to open. A white woman pulled the doors open and said "Come in." Under orders from the superintendent and the school board she refused to enroll the "Negro" students.
For the men and women who were the architects of desegregation in the 1950s, it meant better schools. But today, with District schools producing students who read and calculate on the sixth-grade level when they are in the ninth grade, 25 years after Brown, the dream seems to have been deferred.
In a Law Day speech this year, Theodore R. Newman, chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, said that "the battle is not won . . .
"We must be eternally vigilant to reject the counsel of those who would tell us that blacks have now won the struggle and now 'all's right with the world.'"
That was the beginning of Bolling vs. C. Melvin Sharpe [then president of the D.C. school board], the suit that led to the desegregation of the District schools.
"You know what happened then?" Bishop said. "That woman said 'Bishop, I admire you. Why don't you take the children through and let them see the school? And those black children walked in there and they saw the most beautiful school they ever seen . . . all these wonderful typewriters, the laboratories, the great gymnasium . . ."
After Charles Houston's death in 1950 Bishop and Burma Whitted went to James Nabrit, dean of the Howard Law School, and asked him to take over the case. Nabrit agreed on the condition that the case would be argued on the grounds that segregation itself was unconstitutional. All previous school cases had contended that Negro schools were unequal under the separate but equal doctrine the court adopted in 1876. The District case was the only one of the five Brown cases initally argued on the unconstitutionality of segregation rather than the unfulfilled promise of separate but equal education.
But in the mind of Gardner Bishop, it is a long way from such counsel to the present reality of prostitutes, pimps and junkies at 14th and T streets.
"You see all the black kids standing around out there all day," he said. "That our [black persons'] responsibility. I hate to see the blacks stand up in church and sing the black national anthem. Then they sent their kids out there [places like 14 th and T] without and education, without nothing. They haven't done a thing for them . . . That's no good . . . This is America and we got to remember that we've Americans. This is my flag and I'm going to fight for it and have my part of it.
"They say the children can't read now because of the schools . . . some of them couldn't read then. But some of them are reading now and doing damn well for themselves. When I look up at the City Council and I see all of the Negroes up there . . . when I look and see all the big jobs Negroes have with these big white firms . . . I'm proud. I feel like I had something to do with it." CAPTION: Picture 1, GARDNER BISHOP . . . helped set the stage; Picture 2, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arrived for 1940 movie premiere to find picket protesting the barring of blacks from theaters in Washington. AP; Picture 3, HERBERT O. REID SR. . . . education "is worse" now; Picture 4, JAMES M. NABRIT JR. . . . goal was "same rights" for blacks; Picture 5, Cardozo High School was so crowded in 1948 that members of this health class met in a basement corridor. Furnace pipes reduced clearance to seven feet. Arthur Ellis-The Washington Post; Picture 6, U.S. Supreme Court corridor is crowded on Dec. 7, 1953, by persons seeking chance to attend opening of arguments in school desegregation case. AP