Personal Perspectives: Brown v. Board of Ed
Our nation is fast approaching a watershed year. In Kansas, as well as all over the country, we will witness the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliver L. Brown et.al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS), et.al. on May 17, 2004. We should pay particular attention to the Brown decision, because of the weight placed on its importance by legal scholars and historians alike. With Brown, the high court issued a definitive interpretation of the 14th amendment to our Constitution, making it clear that every individual in this country was entitled to "equal protection under the laws" without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age or any other circumstance. In addition, their decision had a profound impact on our society by making it illegal to practice racial segregation. Brown laid a foundation for ending legal discrimination on any basis as evidenced by the legislation that followed a decade later beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In order to prepare and educate our state and nation and bring a better understanding of the coming anniversary of Brown, we created a 50th Anniversary state coalition. This coalition will plan programs to focus our attention on Brown's role in race relations, education and access to public accommodations. The goal is to have a better-informed citizenry with respect to this historic milestone. This group began its public programs in 2001 by hosting a national touring exhibit "Marching Toward Justice: the History of the 14th Amendment and a Tribute of Thurgood Marshall."
In order to ensure a federal presence in the 50th anniversary of Brown, the Brown Foundation worked along with our Kansas Congressional delegation to pass legislation which established a Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Presidential Commission. President Bush signed this bill on September 18, 2001. After appointments to this body were confirmed in August of 2002, the Commission began its work. Meetings will convene in each of the five states that presented cases combined under the heading of Brown, as well as Massachusetts, the site of the first documented school case in the country. The Commission will plan commemorations and engage in programs for the purpose of educating the public about the significance of the Brown decision. We are networking with organizations like the National Bar Association and the American Bar Association about the possibility of sponsoring "Moot Court" opportunities in 2004 for high school students in tribute to attorneys Charles H. Houston and Thurgood Marshall.
The centerpiece of the 50th Anniversary commemoration will be the grand opening of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service. This opening is scheduled to coincide with the date of the Supreme Court decision, May 17. The National Park will make certain that the Brown decision is interpreted for generations to come.
On a personal note, my family, much like the country, came to gradually understand the importance of the Brown decision. It became most evident with the passage of legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Title IX in 1972, because each of these Acts are based on the Court's edict of equal protection under the laws. My father was recruited by his childhood friend, who at the time was legal counsel for the Topeka NAACP, and joined 12 other parents as plaintiffs in this class action suit. We bear this legacy proudly. Being the family of the namesake of this judicial turning point comes with a responsibility to teach and never let the country forget what it took for some of its citizens to be afforded their constitutional rights.
Finally, I categorize the importance of Brown in this way: it represents three critical aspects in the pursuit of our democratic ideals. First education reform, because education is fundamental to citizenship. Second, Brown required the country to acknowledge and define race relations. Third, the Court ultimately directed the country in what course it had to follow with respect to the inclusive intent of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. Brown asserted the rights of African American people to be full partners in social, political and communal structures.
The Brown decision and the civil rights movement in the United States inspired and galvanized human rights struggles around the world. Other countries often emulate what happens in the United States, the leader of the free world. The Brown federal commission hopes to catalogue the thousands of commemorative programs that will occur in communities, school districts, universities and organizations across the country.
The Brown decision was merely a catalyst-positive relations require more than one willing participant. For many of us, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a national platform for conveying to the citizens and leaders of our country that at the heart of positive race relations is a sense of unity, respect and acceptance.#
Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of the Rev. Oliver Brown, was a plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.