Archive for May, 2014

Brown v. Board of Education and the Work Ahead

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, much has improved; President Barack Obama is in the White House to issue a related proclamation.  According to that proclamation,

Brown v. Board of Education shifted the legal and moral compass of our Nation. It declared that education ‘must be made available to all on equal terms’ and demanded that America’s promise exclude no one. Yet the Supreme Court alone could not destroy segregation. Brown had unlocked the schoolhouse doors, but even years later, African-American children braved mobs as they walked to school, while U.S. Marshals kept the peace. From lunch counters and city streets to buses and ballot boxes, American citizens struggled to realize their basic rights. A decade after the Court’s ruling, Brown’s moral guidance was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  Thanks to the men and women who fought for equality in the courtroom, the legislature, and the hearts and minds of the American people, we have confined legalized segregation to the dustbin of history. Yet today, the hope and promise of Brown remains unfulfilled. In the years to come, we must continue striving toward equal opportunities for all our children, from access to advanced classes to participation in the same extracurricular activities. Because when children learn and play together, they grow, build, and thrive together…. Let us heed the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, who so ably argued the case against segregation, ‘None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody…bent down and helped us pick up our boots.’ Let us march together, meet our obligations to one another, and remember that progress has never come easily — but even in the face of impossible odds, those who love their country can change it.”

In the Narrative of his 19th-century life, the great Frederick Douglass recounted his master’s anger upon discovering that his wife was teaching young Douglass (then a slave) the basics of literacy:

“From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom…. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read…. The argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”

Literacy by itself has limited power, but it does have power.  On this anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, as we reflect on its unfinished legacy, recall, too, the words of Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

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