Lawyers Journal

Celebrating Brown: Nationwide events mark landmark decision

Harvard Law professor chairing anniversary committee reflects on Brown's impact

As the country prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the distinguished professor in charge of planning how the historic day will be observed says the next 50 years of public education will be a challenge.

"We are on the cusp of either incredible success or dramatic failure," said Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

"We have a great challenge to try to save this generation of children who find themselves in under-funded schools, with tremendous pressure to drop out of high school, with few opportunities for jobs or higher education," Ogletree said. "We need to redouble our efforts now to avoid the risk of losing a generation of children. That's particularly why the commission has reached out to high school and junior high schools to discuss the importance of Brown."

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson declaring that "separate but equal" educational facilities no longer had a place in American society. In a second decision, Brown II, the Court called for school desegregation to proceed "with all deliberate speed." These landmark decisions proclaimed that segregation was inherently unequal and that legalized racial inequality would not be tolerated.

In fact, the 1850 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinion Roberts v. Massachusetts was the basis for the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. The Roberts court refused to integrate Boston public schools, stating that segregated schools did not "deepen and perpetuate" racial caste or discrimination. Racism, the court argued, was created by individuals and, therefore, could not be changed by law. This argument became the basis for the Plessy ruling, which established legal segregation throughout the South until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The 17-member ABA commission is coordinating a number of events to celebrate the historic decision. The Commission on the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education includes leading judges, lawyers, civil rights leaders and scholars from around the nation. It is charged with developing initiatives and resources exploring the Brown decision and its legacy, with special attention to the role of lawyers and judges in Brown and in ensuing civil rights struggles. It will work with schools and community organizations nationwide to educate young people on the importance of the Brown decision and its effect on American law and society.

Ogletree praised the commission's work and its members.

"I have never worked with a more dedicated and enthusiastic group of lawyers and judges," he said. "The commission is deeply concerned about Brown and preserving its legacy and for that I'm grateful."

Ogletree, who was 2 years old when Brown was decided, describes himself as a "Brown baby," a member of the first generation of blacks able to attend an elite, predominantly white university. He earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree in political science from Stanford University, and his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he served as special projects editor of the Harvard Civil Rights and Liberties Law Review and was the national chairperson of the Black American Law Students Association.

Ogletree in April was appointed director of the new Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law. The institute is named for the visionary lawyer who spearheaded the litigation in Brown v. Board of Education. It will focus on a variety of issues relating to race and justice as well as sponsor research, hold conferences and provide policy analysis.

Ogletree also serves as faculty director of Harvard Law School's clinical programs, vice dean for clinical programs and is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law. He has made an international reputation by taking a hard look at complex law and working to secure the constitutional rights of equality. He also was on the team that represented Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation proceedings and is leading efforts to secure reparations for descendants of slaves and the survivors and descendants of the Tulsa race riot of 1921.

Ogletree has received numerous awards for his scholarship, professional abilities and commitment to public service and higher education. Recently, he published a book of his personal observations and analysis of the Brown legacy entitled "All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education."

A battle against 'resegretation'

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, our society is more segregated than it has ever been, according to Ogletree.

Brown v. Board of Education was important because it ended legal segregation, however, the Court's "decision, though unanimous, contained a critical compromise, which … undermined the broad purposes of the campaign to end racial segregation immediately and comprehensively."

"While ordering the end of segregation, given its corrosive effects on black children, the Court removed much of the force of its decision by allowing proponents of segregation to end it not immediately but with 'all deliberate speed.' …Those three words reflect, in my view, the slow and ultimately unsuccessful effort to eliminate segregated education," states Ogletree in the book. "This compromise left the decision flawed from the beginning."

A 2003 ABA poll indicates that the majority of the American public believes significant strides have been made toward eliminating discrimination in public education in the 50 years since the Brown decision.

However, a recent study by Harvard University indicates that segregation may actually be increasing in schools. After a peak in school integration in the late 1980s, there has been a slow decline in many states. Experts call the phenomenon "resegregation," as a growing number of students are learning in an environment that is predominantly single race.

"We must address the problems of inequality and, in many respects, resegregation in America that the 'all deliberate speed' approach to racial inequality has left unsolved and replace that approach with an unequivocal commitment - at the highest levels of government, in private industry, and in our personal lives - to full racial equality, and we must do it now," said Ogletree in "All Deliberate Speed."

Events mark decision

Harvard University celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in April with a weeklong series of lectures and panel discussions. Lawyers and judges who were involved in the case offered their reflections on the impact of the decision 50 years later. In addition, nationally known educators, economists and lawyers concerned with equal justice discussed the impact of desegregation on schools and personal careers.

Events are scheduled nationwide, but of particular note is the dedication on May 17, 2004, of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan. Cheryl Brown-Henderson will be the keynote speaker. She is one of the three daughters of the late Rev. Oliver L. Brown, who, along with 12 other families, led by attorneys for the NAACP, filed suit in behalf of their children against the local Board of Education. President George W. Bush is expected to attend.

The highlight of the year will be in August, when the ABA will feature a reargument of Brown at the ABA annual meeting. The event will feature a mock argument before the Supreme Court, set in the present day, which will look at jurisdictions where the segregation of school districts in 2004 meets or exceeds the level of segregation that existed in 1954. Prominent lawyers and judges will be asked to play the roles of advocates and justices in the argument.

For more information on Brown v. Board of Education anniversary events, visit www.abanet.org/brown.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association