May 17, 1954 -- half a century ago -- saw one of the most momentous decisions in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States. Some observers who were there said that one of the black-robed Justices sat on the great bench with tears in his eyes.
The case was of course Brown v. Board of Education, and the decision declared that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. In rapid succession, all kinds of other racial segregation, which were common across most of the South and even in some border states, were likewise declared unconstitutional.
This was a reversal of the old 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that racially "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional -- and an end to the pretense that the segregated facilities for blacks were equal.
As a young government clerk going to a black college at night -- Howard University in Washington -- I first heard of the decision when our professor entered the classroom in an obvious state of agitation and announced that something momentous had happened that day -- and that we would discuss that, instead of the planned lesson.
As various people around the room expressed themselves, it was clear that we were all in favor of the decision. In fact, many of my classmates seemed to have the most Utopian expectations that this was going to lead to some magic solution to problems of race and poverty. When my turn came, I said:
"It's been more than fifty years since Plessy v. Ferguson -- and we still don't have 'separate but equal.' What makes you think this is going to go any faster?"
This discordant note was brushed aside in the general celebration. My classmates seemed to think that racial integration was going to do it all. They were not alone.
Looking back after half a century, what has Brown v. Board accomplished and what has it failed to accomplish? What has it made worse?
After a very long struggle, the courts finally put an end to official racial segregation in states where it had been a barrier and a degradation to blacks. This included the District of Columbia, whose schools were racially segregated.
The anticipated economic benefits, however, lagged far behind. Blacks were already rising out of poverty at a rapid rate that was not accelerated by the civil rights laws and court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s, though of course the progress continued. Yet half a century of political spin has convinced much of the media and the public that black progress began with the civil rights revolution.
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