Ending apartheid in South Africa 10 years ago liberated white as well as black South Africans.
Similarly, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education helped our nation live up to the meaning of our declaration in 1776 of equality of opportunity for all.
On May 17, I am attending, along with President Bush, Rod Paige, Bob Dole, Julian Bond, Cheryl Brown Henderson and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others, the 50th anniversary celebration of the landmark Supreme Court decision that helped launch the modern-day struggle for full human, civil, voting and equal rights for all Americans.
Fifty-eight years before Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court had legitimized Jim Crow laws in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), thus effectively segregating virtually every aspect of our society into an American equivalent of apartheid. In Brown, the Supreme Court reversed the Plessy ruling. The court held "that in the field of education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place.
Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." In oral arguments, Justice Thurgood Marshall defined equality as having "equal means of getting the same thing, at the same time and the same place."
Marshall argued passionately, eloquently and courageously before the court because he knew, all too well, where one person in America is denied his or her natural rights, every other American's rights are threatened, as well. Brown began the process of restoring full citizenship and human rights to all Americans. These had been secured after the Civil War by the 14th Amendment but were taken away gradually by governments in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. For that accomplishment, the case has been called the "moral achievement of the 20th century." It didn't, of course, lead to healing all wounds, but it began the process of dealing more openly with racism in the United States.
The profound significance of Brown was its clarity and the fact that it gave all black Americans, and Americans of all races and nationalities, access to ordinary opportunities that white people took for granted. But, as Secretary of Education Rod Paige noted, the court also added in Brown II the phrase "with all deliberate speed." Paige, who was in college at the time of the Brown decision, observed that "the Supreme Court can change the law, but it could not change people's hearts overnight." Change did come, however, and less than 50 years later the man who was denied admission to virtually every graduate school to which he applied, primarily because of the color of his skin, is now the secretary of education of the United States of America.