Monday, February 22, 2016

Fight for Civil Rights


During Black History Month, we learned about the beginning of school desegregation at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan.
The site is built around the reconditioned Monroe Primary School, which became the focus of the lawsuit that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision, which concluded that segregated education denied “equal protection of the laws” under the 14th Amendment.

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It was clear that segregation had a negative effect on black children — they were not treated as equal citizens. It also was apparent that “separate but equal” schools were not equal. For example, one county in South Carolina budgeted $43 for each black child in 1951, compared with $179 for each white child.

The court’s decision started not only the campaign to integrate schools throughout the country, but also started the breakdown of segregation at lunchrooms, restrooms, water fountains, hotels, buses and swimming pools.

Our brief tour was almost immediately interrupted by a group of protest-sign wielding third-graders marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Later, a young female park ranger, who had just finished a session with her own group of third-graders, explained that third- and seventh-grades in the area surrounding Topeka routinely come here to learn about the civil rights movement.
Because of hostile conditions in the South, many blacks had moved to Kansas, where segregation in elementary schools continued in large cities. Oliver Brown, father of Linda Brown, who was a student in the classroom we visited, became the chief plaintiff in a lawsuit that rolled five cases from around the country into one.

The two lead attorneys were Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the architects of the NAACP’s legal strategies. Marshall later would become the nation’s first black justice on the Supreme Court.

The classroom has been rebuilt and furnished the way it had been as a kindergarten classroom in 1951, and information about how classes were run in those days is given. The most informative room for us was the school’s auditorium, which had three large screens. On one, a black instructor held an interactive discussion with a teenager about the history of segregation and the fight for constitutional rights.
Their discussion covered the post-Civil War years, during which laws were developed that relegated blacks to separate facilities — or barred them altogether. Their discussion also took us to the aftermath of the Brown decision. All the while they were discussing these issues, a series of historical scenes on those topics played on the other screens.

Other classrooms have become display areas, with films, pictures and newspaper spreads giving a history of the problems that were encountered in the movement for integration. One of the most compelling displays included moving pictures projected on either side of a long hallway. As we walked, we saw people shouting, protesters being attacked and southern leaders loudly giving their resistant messages — truly frightening.
Backlash to the court’s decision was widespread. In Virginia, some administrators chose to close schools rather than opening them to blacks. By 1964, only about 1 percent of blacks in the South were attending school with whites. Despite the resistance, it was clear to us during the visit that the Supreme Court’s decision in this case forever changed the way Americans viewed equality.

The displays in the final room show that resistance to equality still exists, and that while many blacks have taken advantage of improved opportunities, we continue to have much economic disparity and bigotry.