U.S. History students learn the Hallmark Legislation of the Civil Rights Movement, but often fail to analyze their long-term ramifications. Using Critical Race Theory, which Gloria Ladson-Billings claims, “departs from mainstream legal scholarship by sometimes employing storytelling to analyze the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race and that invariably render blacks and other minorities one-down,” I seek to have my students analyze these pieces of legislation (9). By analyzing these long-term legislative implications, students can question the dominant historical narrative and hear perspectives they’ve missed regarding race and civil rights.
A prime example of our failure to see these ramifications is seen in the celebrated Brown V. Board ruling. I never even thought twice about the Brown decision, until this summer I listened to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History titled “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment” in which he discusses how the ruling’s wording had unforeseen consequences which many Civil Rights activists and the Brown family themselves had not intended. The Brown’s sued to attend the white school not because they felt the quality of education and teachers at the black school were inferior, but more as a matter of principle and practicality. But the Brown ruling says something completely different, that “segregation of White and Colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the Colored children,”and “has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children” (Brown v. Board).
The ruling therefore says the education black students received from black teachers was inferior and that black people were what Gladwell calls “psychologically crippled.” This not only poses this issue of inferiority, but also led to the denigration and ultimately mass firing of black teachers. Integration destroyed the community established in Southern black schools through caring role models and teachers. Gladwell argues integration should have been implemented differently, integrating the teachers and administration first, not just students. But due to the wording in Brown, what actually happened was quite the opposite: the mass firing of black teachers as black students were sent to white schools and black schools shut down. Black schools, as the wording of Brown made it sound, were inferior to white schools, therefore their teachers were deemed less worthy and fired.
I couldn’t believe, as a history major, I’d never heard this story. In my years of taking history courses, I’ve never encountered a textbook which mentioned these negative consequences of the Brown decision. Furthermore, these textbooks and the traditional narrative of history fails to reflect the perspectives of these African American students and teachers impacted by this decision. In fact, Gladwell even includes a clip of Linda Brown speaking at a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision and instead of praising the ruling she begins her speech by reading the termination letter of a black teacher named Darla Buchanan, highlighting the cost that the Brown ruling came at for over 38,000 of Black teachers in the South. These implications and perspectives have been wholly ignored at the expense of continuing what James Baldwin would argue is the virtuous American history narrative, which is a “series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors” and ignoring its shameful past (683).
Ladson-Billings says the “social studies profession should be the most overt of the school subjects to insist upon the recruitment, training, and retention of a diverse professional teaching force.” Yet she claims that systemically, “people of color are discouraged from pursuing careers in the social studies”(5, 9). And this is exactly where this legacy of Brown comes into play today. We are facing a mass teacher shortage, especially African American teachers (see graphic). The importance of teachers and administration being representative of the student body is seen in the other attached graphic. Comprehending these hidden implications of the Brown decision allows students to understand this current shortage and the negative effects Brown still has today.
Okay, so we have challenged the narrative of Brown as one of the shining achievements of the Civil Rights movement, which integrated schools in the South, but what about the North? Here is where it fits in with my essential question of “how much has changed in the 50 years since the March on Milwaukee?”Milwaukee, as with most Northern cities in the 50s-60s, was incredibly segregated. While Brown forcibly integrated the South, the situation in the North was much more complex, as since the ruling applied more to de jure segregation in the South, the North, though still often heavily de facto segregated, did not immediately move towards integration after Brown. Even though I grew up outside Chicago, I never learned more than a brief mention on school segregation in the North, the narrative always went “Brown V. Board overturned Plessy V. Ferguson, thereby causing mass resistance in the South as seen with the Little Rock 9.”
For students to understand how Milwaukee became the most segregated city in the country, they must understand its complex history and interaction between housing and education discrimination. Originally segregation occurred through“neighborhood schools,” as discriminatory housing practices led to segregated neighborhoods and therefore segregated schools (Richards, Mulvany). The 1975 Amos et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee ruled the Milwaukee school board with unconstitutionally perpetuating segregation in schools, forcing Milwaukee to integrate their schools (UWM Libraries). They accomplished this through programs like busing and magnet schools and Milwaukee made great strides in the 80–90s, and their schools were actually among the most diverse in the country, but what scholars call “boomerang segregation” has occurred and schools have now returned to being among the most segregated in the country (Richards, Mulvany). The schools were then resegregated again through the reinstatement of neighborhood schools.
Baldwin emphasizes the importance of being critical of our history in order to understand the full picture. I want students to grapple with questions such as these: was the Brown decision worth it even if it meant the mass firing of black teachers? How did the North get away with such segregation with the Brown ruling in place? Why do we not hear about these perspectives- did they not speak up? What would our situation today look like if they had integrated students and teachers? Would it have been more beneficial to just to have better-funded urban schools than to actually pursue integration? What should MPS schools do now to better integrate? And, why is this “boomerang” resegregation occurring?
Baldwin, James. “A Talk to Teachers.” Collected Essays, The Library of America, 1998, 678–687.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Ladson-Billings, Gloria.”Lies my Teacher Still Tells.” Critical Race Theory Perspectives on the Social Studies, edited by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Information Age Publishing, 2003, 1–11.
“March on Milwaukee-Courts.” UWM Libraries, https://uwm.edu/marchonmilwaukee/keyterms/courts/
“Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment.” Revisionist History. From Panoply, 29 June 2017, http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/13-miss-buchanans-period-of-adjustment
Richards, Erin and Mulvany, Lydia. “60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education, Intense Segregation Returns.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 17 May 2014.
Interesting perspectives on this issue/additional information: