The legacy of Brown

Posted: May 10, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Brown's success derived from its premise that the Declaration of Independence, which justified the American Revolution, meant what it said when it explicitly declared, "All (not most or almost all) men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  How then, the court reasoned, could government deprive some people, namely black people, the right to an education, which is an absolute necessity for any citizen in our country to pursue happiness?  It was the genius of our constitutional system that allowed one branch of government at one level with the stroke of a pen to discontinue immoral, unconstitutional and, indeed, "evil" actions by other branches of government at another level.

The real benefit of Brown was the fact that it broke down the government-imposed barrier that prevented African-Americans from getting an education, getting a job and living ordinary lives just like their white counterparts.  It meant a black child could learn a skill, become a truck driver and someday own a trucking company.  It was the key to black families' being able to generate sufficient wealth to send their children to college, to save for a vacation, to come home after work and mow the lawn.  It was Brown that opened the door of mainstream America to citizens of African descent.  That is why I am also honored to participate in the "Brown at 50" celebration at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Howard University, the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund in honor of the civil rights attorneys who argued and won the Brown decision.

African-American leaders such as Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP and Earl Graves of Black Enterprise magazine have consistently argued that  access to capital is what's required for minority-owned businesses to thrive.  They understand that capital is the seed corn necessary to enable someone to move from driving a truck to buying a truck and someday hiring others in an enterprise Abraham Lincoln said was the real American system.

What's also missing is the ability for all Americans, particularly minority Americans, to save for retirement because their paychecks are drained every payday to support today's retirees. 
Creating an "ownership society" is the next great civil-rights issue facing our country - home ownership and retirement ownership.I hope we mark the next 50 years of civil rights by empowering all Americans to become stakeholders in the American dream by allowing all workers to invest at least half of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.  We can also help jump-start an urban renaissance by enacting turbocharged enterprise zones so that our urban centers can gain access to capital, fueling economic expansion from Philadelphia to South Central Los Angeles and from East Harlem to East St. Louis.