LANHAM, Md. (WNEW) — This Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most important civil rights cases in the history of the U.S., the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared the establishment of separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional.
It overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring “separate but equal” racial segregation in public facilities.
Brown v. Board of Education is historic because it was “the beginning of the end of legal apartheid in the United States,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Too often what people fail to understand is that, before Brown, you do not have an articulation by the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court, affirming the full and equal citizenship of African Americans in this country. The 14th amendment says that that’s what should happen, but it doesn’t happen.”
When Ifill thinks about the case, her thoughts linger on the people who she calls “patriots” of the civil rights struggle.
“This country has been a participant in many wars on foreign shores but we have veterans of the wars that were fought in this country in order to bring about the promise of equality and the soldiers who fought in those wars were very often young people who had the courage, and their families, to be the pioneers and to take those steps,” Ifill says.
“Most often, I’m sad to say, those young people were not greeted as great heroes, you know for our country. Instead, too often, they were greeted by grown up people, mobs, spitting at them, yelling at them, denigrating them, threatening them. And we should never forget that.”
Examples of those heroes include the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who were initially prevented from entering Little Rock Central High School in September 1957 by members of the Arkansas National Guard, under orders from the Governor.
Later that month, the mayor of the town asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to escort the students into the school. President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to do just that.
Another example is James Meredith, the first black student to be admitted to the segregated University of Mississippi. He was barred from entering the college several times in September 1962 before federal troops were called in to assist. Two people died as a result of the riot that broke out on campus.
“The concerted effort to ensure that the promise of Brown would not be fulfilled at the cost of the integrity of our public education system is something that should never be forgotten,” Ifill says.
There were countless riots and demonstrations opposing school integration, and 101 southern politicians signed a manifesto which declared that “all lawful means” would be used to reverse the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Many white children were pulled out of public schools and sent to private academies, instead, and one Virginia county’s Board of Supervisors responded to the decision by refusing to appropriate any funds to the school board, which effectively shuttered all public schools in the district. They stayed closed for five years.
While a lot has changed in six decades, Ifill says her organization is still fighting to ensure that every child has access to a quality education.
“We have to recognize that the promise of Brown remains unfulfilled in some ways… there are many people who continue to struggle in an education system that is sub-standard and a disproportionate number of those are people of color, or children of color, and we continue to believe it is our job to make sure that the door stays open, in fact that we push the door open even wider, to make sure that all children get through the door.”