Brown v. Board: I Remember the Day

By Lorretta Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer, American Federation of Teachers


I remember the day 60 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was announced on my family’s 9-inch black-and-white television—mandating equal access to education and opening the floodgates for the civil rights movement in my hometown of Baltimore.

At the time, I was a 16-year-old high school junior, and my life revolved around my role as first-chair clarinet in the Douglass High School marching band. I was happy where I was. I had my own world. However, when I stepped just outside that world—even to go to my father’s hometown of Annapolis a few miles away—discrimination came into sharp focus and I felt like a second-class citizen.

Given the option to transfer to the all-white high school, I decided to stay where I was. I watched as my friends, many of them children of Baltimore’s African-American elite, left to go to Western High School, and came back disparaged by white teachers who didn’t want them, white counselors who automatically placed them in the trade program, and white administrators who flagged them as discipline problems.

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the struggle for equality took hold in Baltimore. Together with my fellow band members, I took part in sit-ins at the local drugstore that refused to serve us. I joined the protest against the new mall being built for whites only. In my freshman year at the University of Maryland, I questioned why the African-American students were grouped together in one dorm, regardless of our majors.

Now, 60 years later, I have watched as segregation has morphed into discrimination based on socio-economic status that often translates into racial inequality. Now, more than ever, I feel committed to the fight against the notion of separate and unequal.

As one of the leaders in the effort to re-invigorate and re-integrate Baltimore City’s public schools—after they were starved of funding in the decades after the Brown decision, when the white population and the African-American middle class fled to the suburbs—I feel good about the progress we’ve made in my hometown.

But I am troubled by the way that, across the nation, segregation is keeping educational and economic opportunities out of African-American hands. In 2014, segregation isn’t a Southern problem, it’s a national problem.

Today, our nation’s most segregated schools aren’t found in Mississippi or Alabama. In fact, African-American children in Southern states attend schools where 29 percent of the students are white. Schools with the highest numbers of African-American and Latino students, and fewer than 10 percent of white students, are found up north in New York state, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Add to that the fact that 1 of 2 children in our public schools is poor, and three-fourths of African-American students attend schools where a majority of students are living in poverty, and it becomes clear that even though segregation is no longer just about skin color, it still disproportionately affects students of color.

Economic opportunities for African-Americans today are bleak.

African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, according to a new study by the Urban League. This dire economic situation is nothing new, but in recent years it has grown steadily worse. Meanwhile, the high-poverty schools, where kids need so much more, are provided with so much less.

As we did in Baltimore with the passage of the Thornton law that mandated equal funding for schools across the state, we must begin by ensuring that a child in a poor urban neighborhood is given the same educational opportunities as a child in a wealthy suburban neighborhood—just as Brown v. Board of Education mandated educational equity for all children regardless of their race.

Only then can we reclaim the promise of public education and reclaim the vision that began 60 years ago with Brown: that real equality means equal access to education.