“I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down one of its most iconic legal decisions. In a unanimous ruling the Court determined an 1896 ruling known as Plessy v Ferguson that said, it was legal to maintain separate accommodations in public facilities as long as those facilities were equal. However, in the Brown decision the Court reversed that ruling and said that “separate was inherently unequal.” This declaration was especially meaningful to public school students since so many students throughout the nation attended racially or culturally segregated schools. In far too many instances those schools serving Black students were housed in substandard facilities, with cast off and outdated books, overcrowded classrooms, and staffed by under qualified or unqualified teachers. Brown was supposed to do away with the material inequality that segregation produced.

In principle the Brown decision was exactly what a nation dedicated to democracy and equality should demand. The case was litigated by the NAACP and its lead attorney, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall would go on to become the first Black person to sit on the Supreme Court. On its surface Brown seems like a huge win for those hoping to dismantle racist structures in the society. However, its implementation faced extremely hostile opposition and revealed the deep racial divides that characterize America. What was the flaw in Brown that made it so difficult to implement even up until today? I think the answer might lie in the different interpretations of Brown’s meaning and purpose.

The Brown case was brought by Mr. Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas on behalf of his daughter Linda who had to travel by bus past the White school near her home to attend the segregated Black school. It was one of 5 cases rolled into one regarding unequal, segregated school facilities. As a consequence, we have come to think of it as an “education” case. However, there are legal scholars who regard Brown very differently. These scholars see Brown as a “foreign policy” strategy. At the time the United States was in the midst of the Cold War with the then, Soviet Union. In an attempt to attract non-aligned nations throughout the global south in Asia, Africa, and South America, the Soviets produced very effective propaganda showing how Black people were lynched, water hosed, and attacked by police dogs as they attempted to perform basic civic and social activities (e.g., register to vote, shop in stores, ride public transportation, etc.). In December 1952 the Justice Department filed an amicus brief with a heavy emphasis on the foreign policy implications of continued segregation on the US’s ability to build alliances with non-white nations. The unanimous decision of the Court may have been designed to be a strong signal to other nations rather than to Black people at home.

As noble a cause as the Brown decision may have been, in retrospect we understand the “price” Black people paid for it. Some 35,000 Black teachers and principals in the South lost their jobs as a result of closing Black schools. Black schools were closed indiscriminately with no regard to their quality. At least one scholar, Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker has written a compelling narrative about how Casswell County Training School in North Carolina was a “good” Black school, but the court’s desegregation order required it to be closed in favor of what was a substandard White school.

Brown has been difficult to fully implement, more than a third of students (about 18.5 million) attend schools where 75% or more students were of a single race or ethnicity. Because district boundaries often determine which school a student can attend, school district boundaries can contribute to continued division along racial/ethnic lines. Today, just over 6% of public school teachers are Black. Although the research indicates that having just one Black teacher between grades 3 and 5 can change the academic trajectory for Black children—encouraging them to stay in school and to persist toward post-secondary school—in this post-Brown era our children are unlikely to have a Black teacher.  Recent legislation in states across the nation suggests that they are unlikely to have access to curriculum that reflects their accurate history or culture. They are unlikely to be regarded as intelligent and capable. They are unlikely to reach their full potential. It is important that we not romanticize those sub-standard segregated schools that existed for Black children before Brown. However, we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge what we lost as a result of Brown. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, we may be “integrating our people into a burning house!”