Brown at 60: In the Delta, a Dream Deferred
My thoughts and emotions about the Brown decision are colored by where I live. Cleveland, Miss., has the ignominious distinction of never fully obeying the order to desegregate its public schools.
"Mississippi ignored Brown v. Board of Education ... for a decade," according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. "Black parents started filing lawsuits in the mid-1960s to force compliance; the suit against Cleveland, population 12,000, was filed in 1965, and has dragged on through the courts ever since,"
Separate has never been equal. I began my teaching career at the all-black high school directly in front of our housebuilt in 1955 to dissuade black parents from attempting to integrate. All of our 11 children attended there. Unlike their peers across town, my children never had the opportunity to use a science lab; their teachers performed occasional experiments with a kit purchased out of their own pockets. One year, I went dumpster diving at the other school to get their discarded English books for my students; that was 40 years after Brown.
While recent articles lament a return to segregated public schools, generations of black children in the Delta have yet to know anything else. The "massive resistance" to desegregation resulted in the majority of white students in the Mississippi Delta attending private academies. Ironically, the resistance to complete desegregation here in Cleveland is the reason it is the only Delta town that still has any significant number of white students in its public schools. Brown has been, like Reconstruction, an unfulfilled promise.
There is one staggering effect of the Brown decision that is less discussed: the assault on black educators. In a chapter of the 2011 book The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present, and Future, I review how tens of thousands of African-American teachers and administrators were deliberately terminated when Southern schools were finally forced to desegregate. The percentage of black educators, especially males, in American public education has yet to recover from that devastating period. I argue, "What we currently describe as an achievement gap may have looked very different had more of those veteran African American educators remained to mentor and prepare succeeding generations of teachers and contribute to the overall growth of the profession."
I agree with original plaintiff Cheryl Brown that American education missed a great opportunity for genuine racial reconciliation after the decision, but it's never too late to do the right thing. Every child deserves a quality school.
Renee Moore has taught English and journalism for 25 years in the Mississippi Delta region at both high school and community college levels. She is a National Board-certified teacher and a former state Teacher of the Year. She blogs at TeachMoore and is member of the Center for Teaching Qualities Collaboratory.