Segregation lingers in schools locally and nationally 70 years after Brown v. Board

Segregation lingers in schools locally and nationally 70 years after Brown v. Board

YOUNGSTOWN – Key societal problems that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision seven decades ago sought to remedy continue to manifest themselves in the country’s educational system, a civil rights advocate contends.

“The fierce urgency of now is now,” Tom Roberts, the Ohio NAACP president, said, adding to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Roberts was referring to what he and many other civil rights leaders and activists see as the need to eradicate embedded segregation that remains in many school systems in Ohio and nationwide.

Roberts made his remarks during an event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision that ruled state-sanctioned segregation in public schools based on race was unconstitutional and violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment.

Sponsoring the three-hour gathering, themed “Delivering on the Promise of Brown,” were the NAACP’s Youngstown branch, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past and the Youngstown City Schools. The Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office co-sponsored the gathering.

The decision, which Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered and was first argued Dec. 9, 1952, also reversed the main tenet in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision: the “separate but equal” precedent. Brown v. Board of Education, most historians say, also was a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement and opened the door to advance desegregation in public accommodations and institutions of higher learning.

In addition, the ruling delivered a key victory to the Legal Defense Fund in its fight toward protecting others’ civil rights.

Additional arguments were heard during the next Supreme Court term to decide how to enforce the Brown decision. On May 31, 1955, Warren read the court’s unanimous decision to states instructing them to begin integration efforts “with all deliberate speed,” something many contend was vague wording — and language segregationists used to delay following the decision as long as possible.

In addition to those who supported segregation, Brown faced resistance from some constitutional scholars who felt it relied too much on data from social scientists instead of established law or precedent. Some also felt the Supreme Court had overstepped its jurisdictional bounds by essentially writing new law.

Nevertheless, the true civil rights movement can be traced to 1619, which marked the beginning of chattel slavery, Roberts said.

“It began when the slaves said, ‘I’m not going to do what you tell me to do anymore,'” he added.

To help combat modern school segregation, it’s vital that more stakeholders commit or recommit to being more immersed in children’s education and work to better students’ academic expectations, Roberts continued.

The event’s keynote speaker was Joanne Bland of Selma, Alabama, who vividly remembered life in the segregated Jim Crow South and became a civil rights foot soldier at a young age.

She compared many social-justice movements with completing a jigsaw puzzle, saying that each person is a vital piece of the necessary action, and that if even one piece is missing, the puzzle is incomplete.

“Your piece is the most important,” she said, adding, “I grew up in segregation, and there was nothing nice, nothing short of being inhuman.”

Bland recalled having accompanied her grandmother to a shoe store, where the young girl saw a shoe that she wanted and broke free from her grandmother to try it on, only to discover the shoe, the other one of which was in a box, didn’t fit. Her grandmother had brought a string to measure the correct size, but her grandmother was forced to buy the wrong pair merely because Bland had slipped into one of the shoes.

“My grandma said, ‘I’m sorry, baby, but colored people can’t try on shoes,'” Bland recalled.

Eventually, Bland, who also grew up poor and later served in the U.S. Army, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major civil rights group, and became steeped in the philosophy of nonviolence. For her activism, she had amassed 13 documented arrests by age 11 – including two in a single day, and often shared a cell with about 20 others.

“Violence in any form is wrong. You know that as well as I know that,” Bland said.

She also remembered having been on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, a day infamously known as “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers and police attacked an estimated 600 marchers. Bland’s 14-year-old sister, Linda, suffered injuries that required 35 stitches, she said.

During the five-day, 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march, Bland walked the first 10 miles, then the last leg of the historic walk from the City of St. Jude to the state capital, she added.

Bland implored the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past high school students and other young people to know they have the power to effect social change and move the nation forward.

“Your voice needs to be heard,” she said. “Your ideas need to be on the table.”

James Brown, the local NAACP chapter’s president, gave a brief history of the civil rights organization, saying that its forerunner was the Niagara Movement, which a group of black intellectuals, including W.E.B. DuBois, then a professor at Atlanta University, founded in 1905 to gain civil rights for blacks.

The local NAACP serves about 125 people per year and handles cases that largely deal with housing discrimination, education, voting and employment, he noted.

Also during the gathering, Donquail Mims and Julian C. Johnson, both members of Youngstown State University’s Black Students Union, read key portions of the Brown decision.

In addition, several young people, including Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past members, read aloud essays they had written that pertain to the Brown decision as well as other civil rights topics.

In her essay, Sarah Kent, a Chaney High School sophomore, tied the 1954 Brown decision to the nine black students who, in September 1957, integrated the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“The story of the Little Rock 9 deeply impacted this country and myself,” Kent wrote. “This story opened my eyes to the horrific history of this country. Students are educated less and less about black history as the years go on, which is not just.”

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