Brown v. Board litigants, family mark anniversary as Biden decries ongoing school inequality

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Plaintiffs and family members of plaintiffs in the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case, Cheryl Brown Henderson, second from right, John Stokes, second from left, and Nathaniel Briggs, right, speak outside the White House with NAACP President Derrick Johnson, left, after meeting with President Joe Biden on May 16, 2024. This week marks the 70th anniversary of the landmark case that ended legal segregation of students based on race in the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education this week while recognizing that the full potential of the decision “remains unfulfilled.”

Friday marks 70 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional in a case that originated with a challenge to the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education. Since the 1954 decision, racial segregation has not only persisted, but increased, in school districts across the U.S., according to a recent report.

“There is still so much work to do to ensure that every student has equal access to a quality education and that our school systems fully benefit from the diversity and talent of our students — because diversity has always been one of our Nation’s greatest strengths,” Biden wrote in a proclamation on the 70th anniversary of the decision. The president has committed to advancing racial equity during his administration.

Biden on Thursday met with multiple plaintiffs and family members from Brown v. Board and the cases combined under it, including John Stokes, a plaintiff in a Virginia case consolidated with Brown; Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of lead plaintiff Oliver Brown; Nathaniel Briggs, son of plaintiff Harry Briggs Jr.; and NAACP president Derrick Johnson. The meeting was closed to the press.

Cases consolidated with Brown include Briggs v. Elliott, from South Carolina; Bolling v. Sharpe, from Washington, D.C.; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward, from Virginia; and Gebhart v. Belton, from Delaware.

Cabinet members mark anniversary

The White House meeting came after the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice’s celebration of the 70th anniversary on Tuesday, part of which featured a conversation with Leona Tate and Gail Etienne. They were among the four students who helped desegregate New Orleans schools in 1960.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged the significance of the Supreme Court ruling while highlighting the persistence of segregation in schools.

The work of Brown v. Board is “not just part of our history” but “ongoing,” Garland said Tuesday, pointing to the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of desegregation orders as the agency monitors more than 130 school districts comprising nearly 900,000 students in more than 1,500 schools.

“Brown v. Board and its legacy remind us of who we want to be as a nation: a place that upholds values of justice and equity as its highest ideals,” Cardona said, adding that “over the course of the last 70 years, we’ve often struggled to live up to those ideals.”

“Black students may no longer need to be escorted to school by U.S. marshals and they may no longer face angry mobs on their way to school or eat at separate lunch tables, but today, we have a system where we have normalized underinvesting in schools that serve a majority of Black communities,” he said.

Segregation on the rise

Large school districts have witnessed a rise in school segregation over the past three decades, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Southern California found. In the 100 largest school districts in the country, segregation between white and Black students has increased by 64% since 1988.

Brown v. Board also put much of the responsibility on Black students, who had to be bused to predominantly white schools, according to Chantelle Grace, assistant clinical professor in social science education at Florida State University’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Grace said there was no consideration in the ruling of “other laws that might need to go with it to protect Black students in having to go about this process.”

The Supreme Court decision also left negative consequences for Black teachers and the Black teacher pipeline, according to Grace.

“We saw a big loss of the Black teaching population at the time, too, to the point where we’re still trying to, I think, recover that Black teacher pipeline in getting more Black teachers in the classroom,” Grace said.

“We acknowledge the progress it was signifying with the ruling to say that ‘separate but equal’ is unconstitutional, but we also have to be mindful and aware of the reverberating legacy it left as well on Black communities, the Black teacher pipeline, as well as the ways in which schools are now kind of resegregating themselves due to policies that are not holding up the promise that Brown v. Board of Education initially ruled,” she added.

Biden will make remarks Friday at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. On Sunday, he will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically Black men’s college.

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