As a life member of the NAACP, a product of a northern integrated school, as a black kid who spent my summers with my grandparents in the segregated south near Fayetteville, and a student of educational policy, the anniversary of the May 1954 magnificent victory over Jim Crow arouses conflicting emotions. I imagine with pride Thurgood Marshall and his friends on the NAACP brilliant legal team at the plaintiffs' lawyer desk; our NAACP youth and parents sit quietly in the court's pews; nine white men came out from behind the curtains, eight took their seats; Chief Justice Earl Warren stood and read these historic words:
"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group....We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
When Warren finished, it is said the angels sang. But many southern political leaders reacted with rage. They set up secret political societies, decided to take over the weak and disorganized Republican Party scaffold, and have fought the Brown decision and the NAACP ever since. The legacy of their fearful and angry backlash has vexed our region since.
I commend historian Richard Rothstein's recent summary of the meaning of Brown after 63 years to contain useful benchmarks: (1) It annihilated the separate but equal rule of Plessy which had federally blessed the 1896 joke that "equal" resources balanced the detrimental effects of racial apartheid. (2) Brown focused our society's attention on the cruelty of white subjugation of blacks. (3) Brown's reversal of Plessy spawned mass protests across the south against Jim Crow—freedom rides, sit-ins, mass voter drives with all white law enforcement departments beating, hosing, jailing and murdering them for trying to vote.
Although Rothstein found "segregated classrooms persist as a central feature of American public education today," he quickly showed the cause of Jim Crow's long term grip on our southern schools stemmed from the fact that Jim Crow dual systems never allocated adequate funds to close the grossly unequal gap the schools had in 1954. Black performances rose dramatically in recent decades; but white performances also improved. The achievement gaps between them "remain huge." The wide inequalities in 1954 sets an enormous challenge for today's education priorities.
Rothstein prescribed hard truth to bridge this gap. He warned mere equal resources to mostly black schools are not enough. Disadvantaged students require "much greater resources" than white students from higher income families receive, to be successful in school. Rothstein bravely stated what honest educators have always known— there are five or so programs, all costing money, that are proven to be effective in closing the gap. High-quality early childhood programs from birth to school entry. High-quality after-school and summer programs. Full-service school health clinics. More skilled teachers. Smaller classes.
These programs mirror the NC NAACP's education agenda. Better and experienced teachers are, of course, key to all education reform. We stand in solidarity with our teachers and their association's demand for livable salaries. Gov. Roy Cooper is on the right track, but his 8 percent raise is too little and spread out far too long (editor's note: Cooper has proposed raising teacher pay an average of 8 percent next year as part of a plan to get to the national average in four years). The main obstacle to better schools are the extremists in the Jim Crow Caucus of the legislature.
The NAACP is the largest, oldest civil rights organization in the nation. Our N.C. State Conference coordinates over 100 branches, a half-dozen in the Appalachians are predominantly white. We are a non-violent army of volunteers, determined to dismantle Jim Crow and its legacy. Our 1954 victory over Jim Crow gave all people in the Jim Crow Abolition Movement high legal ground to buttress its high moral ground. We invite all to join us in the task of our generation: Complete Brown and dismantle Jim Crow.