"We figured if we managed to outlaw [segregation] then equality would occur," said 87-year-old U.S. District Court Judge Robert Carter. "We were naïve at the time of course."
Carter, one of the lawyers who argued successfully for the end of so-called "separate but equal" schools in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court case, set the tone at the March 26 Duquesne University symposium commemorating its 50th anniversary. The U.S. has not seen so much separate and unequal education, said participants, since the era of Plessy v. Ferguson, which Brown overturned.
With Brown, Carter told the capacity crowd, many supporters of integration felt victory was theirs and that "the NAACP could go home now ... I wasn't one of those people."
The Supreme Court had also ruled for public school integration to transpire with "deliberate speed," noted another original Brown lawyer, Columbia Law professor Jack Greenberg. (Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall also argued the case.) States', cities' and individual school districts' integration efforts were slowed by massive, sometimes violent, public resistance. Pittsburgh itself didn't begin enforcing desegregation plans until 1982.
Desegregation has not been "a colossal failure, but it's close," said Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine who needed U.S. military escorts to integrate the town's Central High School. "We seem to be deciding as a nation that we'd rather be separate. But it wasn't for nothing. ... My sons and daughters can do things today that I never dreamt I could do." Vivian Malone Jones, escorted by Alabama's National Guard troops into the University of Alabama when Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway, today sits on the University president's cabinet. The university in 2004 is 13 percent black, with black student government leaders. "Is it enough, though?" she asked. "Absolutely not."
Joseph A. Delaine Sr., a minister and teacher in South Carolina's Clairton County, helped organized Briggs v. Elliott, one of five cases consolidated to form Brown v. Board. His son and namesake told the symposium how their home and church were both burnt down as a result. Willie L. Shepperson, a plaintiff in the Prince Edward County, Va., component of the Brown case, spoke of hand-me-down books, materials and buses from white schools in his all-black hometown of Farmville, Va. Now this "public school complex," Shepperson said, has been re-segregated in the name of "gifted" and "non-gifted" children. The gifted track has only two blacks while the non-gifted has only four whites, he said.
Re-segregation reached Pittsburgh beginning in 1995, as City Paper found last year (see cover story, "Dis-Integration," June 19, 2002, www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/prev/archives/covarch/cov02/cv61902.html). As of 2001, only a quarter of city middle-school students' classrooms were integrated.
For black Americans, Robert Carter said, Brown did succeed in changing their attitudes about the right to equality: "We no longer had to depend on the goodness of white people. That led to blacks becoming more militant and diligent about what their rights were and that's what the real revolution is."