Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education

07 November 2002

Bill Taylor1

In less than two years Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education,2 a decision that struck down state laws that sanctioned racial segregation of public schools.Linda Brown was an eight-year-old black child who had to cross Topeka, Kansas to attend grade school, while her white friends attended a local public school. The Topeka school system was segregated on the basis of race and under the "separate but equal" doctrine, this arrangement was acceptable and legal. Linda's parents sued in federal district court on the basis that separate facilities for blacks were inherently unequal. The lower courts rejected the complaint. The Browns and other families in other school systems then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that even facilities that were physically equal did not take into account "intangible" factors, and that segregation itself had a negative and pernicious effects on the education of black children. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the Browns' favour, striking down racially segregated education arrangements in the U.S. In the view of most informed observers, Brown was the most important case decided by the Supreme Court in the last century. By sounding the death knell for the web of Southern laws that imposed a caste system on black people, separating them from whites in virtually all public activities, the decision marked the dawning of the modern civil rights era.

The laws that the Supreme Court held violated the United States Constitution were not an expression of an abstract philosophy that "separate could be equal", but, in the words of the late Charles Black, a "massive intentional disadvantaging of the Negro race"; an effort to replace slavery with a system that would keep black people in a subjugated status.

I first learned about segregation when I joined the legal staff of Thurgood Marshall at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense fund in December 1954, soon after the Brown decision. In the years since, I have learned how deeply entrenched these practices are, throughout the nation, not just in the South, where segregation was mandated by statute. I have also learned that the penchant on the part of the dominant group to isolate members of minorities did not only affect African Americans. Latinos, Asian Americans and other people of color found themselves segregated in schools, housing and other areas through official and unofficial policies of government.

Nor is segregation a peculiarly American institution. Black people in South Africa, Dalits in India, Roma in Europe, indigenous people in South America and Australia have all been the targets of policies to wall them off from the rest of society.

Even after segregative practices are eliminated, their consequences may linger for many years. In the 1940s and 50s, federal policies in the United States enabled people to buy houses in the expanding suburbs at low cost. But people of color were frequently excluded. Now, years later, many white families have achieved middle class status through the growing equity they acquired in their homes, but blacks were denied this opportunity. Now that racial practices have been eliminated, they find that income is still a barrier to suburban home ownership and that this also means exclusion from good services and good schools. In schools, the gap between the achievements of white students and minority students created largely by segregation has been eliminated only partially. Further progress is stymied by the widespread practice of placing minority children in special education or other classes where little is expected of them and little is offered.

By familiar and accepted gauges, a significant segment of the black population, particularly people who have come to maturity in the post-Brown era, have made striking progress. One key measure of this progress is the movement of black workers from menial and low-paying jobs into more skilled and remunerative occupations. From 1961 to 1982, the proportion of black people in the labor force in professional and technical jobs increased from 4.6 percent to almost 10 percent. In executive, managerial and administrative jobs, the rise was from 2.5 percent to more than 5 percent. Although these changes reflect in part a general upgrading of the occupational status of the labor force, gains for white workers during the same period were significantly more modest. When attention is directed to the younger minority groups in the population, even more encouraging indications of mobility emerge. As recently as 1968, only 12.4 percent of all black women in the 25-34 age category were employed in professional jobs. By 1977, the proportion for the same group (by then the 35-44 age category) had increased to 18.8 percent.[...]

The improved occupational status and growing income of a segment of the black population reflects important changes in educational attainment. As recently as 1966, the number of black students attending college was only 340,000. By 1974, black enrollment had risen to 814,000, and by 1982 it had reached more than one million.[...]

Those blacks who have broken through in the past two decades to better education, more skilled jobs, and higher pay have been rewarded with middle-class status. They are far more likely than blacks in the past to own their own homes, be part of families that never suffer the tragedy of infant death, and live long enough to become senior citizens. In sum, for a substantial segment of the black population, the post-Brown era has meant more than the elimination of official racism - it has brought genuine opportunity.

(William L. Taylor, "Brown, Equal Protection, and the Isolation of the Poor", The Yale Law Journal, Volume 95, Number 8, July 1986)     

But this is the bleak part of the story. The other part is that once the walls of segregation began to fall, African Americans seized the opportunities and made the most of them. The result was a great expansion in the numbers of black people in colleges and universities, in better paying jobs, in the professions, in election to public office and in many other facets of American life. In addition, if the urge to maintain dominance by isolating people seems pervasive, so is the hunger of oppressed people everywhere to seek opportunity by breaking down the barriers of segregation. In the United States, the black civil rights movement was followed by other movements by people of color to attack segregation. The successful effort a decade ago to establish rights for children with disabilities was founded on the articulated policy that what these children needed was mainstreaming, not isolation. And the movement of Roma rights organizations and educators to end the mislabeling of children as mentally retarded is based on the same understanding of the importance of access to mainstream society.

The battle for equality will continue to be arduous. But it is worth recalling that when Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues began their legal struggle against segregation in the 1930s and 40s, they had no objective reason to believe they could succeed, since segregation had been enshrined in American law by the Supreme Court. Now the situation is different. We have the record of legal success that Marshall and others achieved, and the difference that record has made in the lives of so many people. So we have no reason to be discouraged and every reason to continue the struggle.

What makes the difference between racially and socio-economically segregated schools and those that are desegregated? The shibboleth of anti-desegregation groups that it is not necessary for black children to sit next to white children in order to learn is an irrelevancy. The middle class schools of the suburbs generally have several attributes that contribute to their effectiveness. One is that they are set in communities where most everyone - parents, teachers and students themselves - have high expectations for success. The question for most students is not whether they will have a chance to go to college but which college they will attend. With these high expectations come high standards. The norms set for student achievement are high and shoddy work ordinarily will not do. The final elements are ample resources, beginning with highly qualified teachers and accountability. If a principal or teacher is not measuring up, parents and community leaders will demand her replacement and they have the clout to see that their demands are met. Indeed, if a school system is not responsive, many parents have the means to go elsewhere.

Low expectations lead to low standards. Given the way state school finance systems work, schools with poor children often lack critical resources. Well qualified teachers either don't come or don't stay. And while many parents want the best education for their children, they lack the clout to hold the system accountable for poor teaching or overcrowded classrooms.

(William L. Taylor,"Title I as an Instrument for Desegregation And Equal Educational Opportunity", speech delivered at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on August 29, 2002.)


  1. A 1954 graduate of the Yale Law School, William L. Taylor began his career as a staff attorney at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. He later served at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, where he was director from 1965 to 1968. For 15 years, he taught civil rights law at Catholic University, where he founded the Center for National Policy Review, and ran a clinical program that focused on implementation of federal civil rights laws and on school desegregation litigation. Currently, Bill Taylor is an adjunct professor of law in private practice. He also serves on the United States Board of Testing and Assessment of the National Academy of Sciences and as Vice Chair of the Washington-based Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.
  2. The landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ended segregation of blacks in public schools in the United States. The case overturned the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the doctrine of "separate but equal." This doctrine stated that separate public facilities of equal quality do not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. For more information on the Brown case, see


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