Supporters Fight for Public Schools Survival

Six Decades after Brown Ruling, Education Gap Widens

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/21/2014, 3 p.m.
Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped segregation in America's public schools, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the steps ...
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton joined hundreds of demonstrators on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to call for greater support of beleaguered public schools on May 13. The rally and march to the Department of Justice was sponsored by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and other groups. Photo by Roy Lewis

Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court scrapped segregation in America’s public schools, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the steps of the Supreme Court then marched to the Department of Justice demanding that President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder use the power of their offices to blunt the assault against public schools.

Even as the nation celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of the landmark decision last week, it is clear that supporters and opponents are locked in a struggle for the soul of public education in the U.S.

The demonstrators – comprised of teachers’ unions, students, parents, student groups and concerned individuals and groups – while passionately defending public schools remain uncompromising in their criticism of those seeking to destroy them.

“My grandmother started teaching in 1928,” said Lucinda Noches Talbert, granddaughter of Lucinda Brown, who signed on as the first plaintiff in the historic case. “She moved to Topeka and became active in the NAACP.”

Talbert, vice president of programs for kchealthykids, said the school system marginalized black children and gave them a substandard education. For example, music wasn’t taught to black children in Topeka schools because of the prevailing sentiment that “colored” people weren’t interested in music and parents couldn’t afford to pay for the instruments.

One young speaker, a senior at Chicago’s Dunbar High School on the city’s South Side, illustrated that 60 years later, little has changed.

“In 2008, Dwyer High School had (a student population of about 98 percent African American),” she said. “It also had the largest decrease of all public schools. In 2012, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) decided to phase it out.”

Unlike the prestigious Lakeview High School on the North Side, she said students at Dwyer and schools in black communities have no Advanced Placement courses or language classes, no drawing, painting or art classes and students are forced to take art and gymnastics online.

“This is a slap in the face for Brown v. Board of Education,” she said. “CPS doesn’t believe we can learn, doesn’t believe that we deserve better.”

Vivian Gannascoli listened with a shocked expression.

“Schools with no libraries and art programs? You can’t do art online, you need engagement. It’s really sad,” said the 28-year-old Columbia Heights resident, who accompanied her aunt Connie McKenna to the rally and march.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also spoke at the rally sponsored by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and several other groups. She, like the protestors, said America must fulfill the law’s promise and bring parity and educational justice to all students. 

“We must change the direction of our schools,” said Norton, 76. “Our schools are not adversarial centers. Let’s chase harsh discipline from the schools. Let’s make them arenas for learning, not test factories.”

Norton remembers the moment on May 17, 1954 when as a junior at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. her principal shared the good news.

“It was certainly the most memorable moment in my life,” she recalled during a May 19 interview. “I was sitting in one of those segregated schools and the principal told us right after the decision that segregation had ended. It was a very emotional moment. Tears came to the eyes of some of the teachers. But schools were quickly resegregated as whites fled D.C. in large numbers.”