Thank you Judge Kavenewsky.
Honorable Judges, Members of the Bar, students,
teachers, ladies and gentlemen:
Good morning on this 46th annual observance
of Law Day. Our theme today is "To win Equality by Law:
Brown v. Board of Education at 50".
The America of half a century ago in 1954 was not
tumultuous, as it would become in the 60s.
A popular president, Dwight Eisenhower, was midway
through his first term. The world was recovering from the
ravages of World War II. The Korean War was over. America
was in love with its flashy, chrome-laden cars with rear
fins. Ed Sulliivan and Milton Berle were on TV. The
Interstate Highway system was being built. The "baby boom"
had started. New houses were cropping up everywhere. In
many ways, things were looking good.
But, there were problems – serious problems. America
was a racially divided country, especially – but not
exclusively – in the south. Although almost a century had
passed since President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation
Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the United States
Constitution had abolished slavery, and the 14th
Amendment had guaranteed to the citizens of all states due
process of law and equal protection of the law, African
Americans – or "colored people", as they were then called
– in many parts of America were forced to live virtually a
separate existence apart from the mainstream of American
Society. There was in many places a line in the sand
separating backs from whites under the so-called "Jim
Crow" laws enacted in the late 1800s by some 17 southern
and "border" states , mandating – by force of law – the
separation of blacks and whites in parks, hotels,
restaurants, hospitals, theaters, libraries, bathrooms,
buses, trains, places of employment, and in its most
invidious form - because of its impact on innocent
children – in the public schools.
And this mandated pattern of segregation, had survived
a legal challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment when in
1896 the Supreme Court held in the case of Plesy v.
Ferguson that there was not a violation of
constitutional rights so long as the facilities available
to both races were "substantially equal".
The "separate but equal" doctrine prevailed throughout
the first half of the 20th century. There were
other things on the minds of most Americans, black and
white – like surviving a depression and winning two world
wars. But, following World War II, things began to change.
President Truman, in a courageous move, integrated all
American Armed Forces by an Executive Order as Commander
in Chief. And, in 1947 in an equally courageous move, a
gifted young black athlete out of the UCLA, Jackie
Robinson, accepted the offer of Mr. Branch Rickey,
president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to become the first of
his race to play in the major leagues.
The NAACP Legal Defense Team, headed by a brilliant
young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, began to challenge
the pervasive segregation in America in courts throughout
the land. And they won some cases under the "separate but
equal" doctrine by showing that facilities for blacks were
not equal to the facilities for whites--- and then the
time had come to challenge the "separate but equal"
Linda Brown, was at that time a 7- year old third grade
student in Topeka, Kansas. Because she was black, she was
not allowed to attend the white elementary school a few
blocks from her home. She had to walk over a mile through
a railroad switch yard to attend Monroe Elementary School,
a segregated school for blacks only. Her father, Oliver
Brown, tried unsuccessfully to enroll her in the white
school. With the assistance of the NAACP her father sued
the Topeka board of education. He did not claim that
Monroe Elementary school was inferior to the white school.
He claimed that Linda was denied equal protection of the
law just because she was required to go to a separate
school. The federal court in Topeka ruled in favor of the
school board on the basis of the "separate but equal"
doctrine, even though the court made a finding that
segregation of white and colored children has a
detrimental effect upon the colored children.
Linda Brown’s case was consolidated with the cases of
other black students from South Carolina, Virginia, and
Delaware, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The
Court heard argument in December of 1951, but failed to
decide the case before the end of the term. During the
summer recess, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died of a heart
attack. President Eisenhower appointed former California
Governor Earl Warren to replace him. The Court heard
argument again in December 1952. Chief Justice Warren very
much wanted the court’s opinion to be unanimous and he
worked all the through the winter and spring to bring the
Court together to put an end to school segregation.
Finally, there was unanimity on an opinion written by
the Chief Justice. On May 17, 1954 without advance notice
Chief Justice Warren read the opinion into the record at
the end of a routine court session. Oliver Brown had won.
Mandatory segregation of the races in the public schools
was held to be in all cases a violation of the equal
protection clause, The Court ruled that under the
Constitution, "separate" can never be "equal".
As the Court said: " Does segregation of children in
public schools solely on the basis of race, even though
the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may
be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of
equal educational facilities? We believe that it does."
Quoting with approval from the federal judge in Linda
Brown’s case in Kansas, the Supreme Court said:
"Segregation of white and colored children in public
schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored
children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction
of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually
interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro
Plesy v. Ferguson was overruled.
The Court ordered segregation in public schools
throughout America to end "with all deliberate speed", but
did not set a deadline or prescribe any particular method
to integrate the schools. In fact the implementation of
the order took decades, because of the labyrinth of rules
and regulations governing thousands of school districts
throughout the country, and because of some obvious
resistance and heel-dragging especially in the south.
Eventually, however, deliberate mandated school
segregation came to an end, and virtually all school
systems have been released from judicial supervision as
being in compliance with the Brown decision.
The impact of the Brown decision was immense. Even
though it did not end purposeful school discrimination for
many years, it had a prompt and profound effect in other
areas. A unanimous Supreme Court had declared in simple
and unambiguous terms that segregation of the races was
illegal . The civil rights movement had been
"kick-started". By the end of the 1960’s Congress had
passed laws prohibiting discrimination in all public
facilities, voting rights, employment, housing, health
care, public accommodations, and virtually every aspect of
American life. The Brown decision was the "shining beacon"
that had finally alerted America to the evils of the
segregation and discrimination that had prevailed for
almost 100 years since the end of slavery.
The impact of Brown is evident today, after 50 years,
among students whose parents may not have been born when
Brown was decided. For instance, David Benjamin of
Westhill High School, says in his Law Day essay:
" Being in a diverse environment is the only way for
students to learn about others’cultures and to learn how
to interact with these other people in the real world. …
For many years, people have been searching for ways to
bridge the gap between different races, uniting everyone
in brotherhood together. Brown v. Board of Education
was one of the first steps to bridging this gap."
Christine Suchy of Middlebrook School, says: "The
United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of
Education helped protect liberty, education rights,
and most of all – freedom... .I cannot imagine a classroom
without students of all races and cultures."
And Cyprian Oyomba of All Saints Catholic School says:
"The Brown v. Board of Education decision is one of the
most critical decisions ever made by the Supreme Court. If
it were not for that decision I probably would not be
going to the school that I am currently attending. Thanks
to Oliver Brown and Thurgood Marshall I can receive a
quality education just like any other person."
From the point of view of our Law Day celebration
today, I would like to dwell for just a moment not only on
what the Brown case decided, but the way it was decided.
Let us look back at that other terrible injustice in
American history – slavery. Before the Emancipation
Proclamation could have any meaning, or the Thirteenth
Amendment could be ratified, we had to go through four
years of the bloodiest war in our history. Some 558,000
Americans – some wearing the blue uniform of the North and
some wearing the gray uniform of the South – lost their
lives. The school segregation decision, on the other hand,
was made when Oliver Brown, through his chosen attorneys,
brought a civil lawsuit in a federal court in Kansas on
behalf of his daughter Linda. He lost, but the judge
issued a written opinion setting forth his reasoning.
Oliver Brown then exercised his rights to appeal and took
the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The case was pending there for almost two years of
deliberate, orderly consideration of the briefs and oral
arguments advanced by Thurgood Marshall and his chief
adversary, John W. Davis. No blood was shed. The decision
was made in the courthouse – not the battlefield - based
solely on the records from the lower courts and the
arguments and briefs of the parties. There were no
uniforms other than the plain black robes of the Justices,
and their decision instantly became the law of the land
and remains so today. In other words, this momentous
decision was made peacefully, under the "Rule of Law",
which is really the recurring theme that we celebrate each
Law Day. The Rule of Law is what has given us a stable
government for 232 years, and differentiates us from
despotism and dictatorship.
As Jacob Berv of Westhill High School said in his
"Indeed, a society without law is not a society at all,
but a group of people living in anarchy. "
A poignant example of our national adherence to the
Rule of Law occurred after the last presidential election.
The result of the voting was uncertain weeks after the
election. The Supreme Court took the case, heard argument
and issued a 5- 4 ruling. Millions of people disagreed
with the ruling, but no one questioned its finality and
George W. Bush became our 43rd President. In a
country of 290 million people, the vote of a single
Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court determined the outcome,
and an orderly transition of government took place. In
many countries, the military would have become involved
and there would have been bloodshed.
The final chapter on Brown v, Board of Education has
yet to be written. Certainly, all mandatory, or
intentional school segregation has been abolished. No one
is excluded from any school because of his or her race.
But, there are varying degrees of real integration in our
Because of other factors – the decline of our cities,
the flight to the suburbs, private schools, teacher
shortages, the outplacement of jobs to other countries,
economic downturns and declining tax bases, and many other
factors- there are school systems and individual schools
where the racial/ethnic enrollments do not reflect the
makeup of the local population. This is sometimes called
"de facto segregation". Just look at this Page One story
from the Stamford Advocate of April 27 concerning racial
imbalance in the Norwalk public schools.
As Matthew Gurney noted in his essay, it is rare
sometimes to find a minority student in honors programs or
advanced placement courses. A recent study by Harvard
University has shown a back-sliding because of de-facto
segregation. In my native City of Bridgeport 89% of the
students in the public schools are African-American,
Latino or other minorities.
Connecticut has had its own 1990s version of Brown v.
Board of Education. Elizabeth Horton Sheff sued Governor
O’Neill and the Hartford School system on behalf of her
son Milo who was a fourth grade student. She claimed that
students in Hartford public schools were racially,
ethnically, and economically isolated, and that, as a
result, Hartford public school students had been denied a
substantially equal educational opportunity under the
Constitution of Connecticut. In 1996 the Connecticut
Supreme Court found that poverty, not race or ethnicity,
was the principal causal factor in the lower educational
achievement of Hartford students, but nonetheless found
that the plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitution of
Connecticut had been violated and ordered the Governor and
the Connecticut General Assembly to come up with a remedy.
The case is now the subject of an interim settlement
agreement approved by the court, subject to further review
in 2007. The agreement calls for tripling the number of
Hartford’s African- American and Latino students in
desegregated educational settings within four years
through a plan which includes two new interdistrict magnet
schools and increased usage of Project Choice with
adjoining suburban towns.
On this 50th anniversary of the Brown
decision we must all rededicate ourselves to work
constantly to stamp out the "detrimental effect" of racial
separation, as first noted by the federal judge in Topeka,
whether it be mandatory or "de facto" .
It will probably be up to our students here today, and
their peers, to write the final pages of the Brown v.
Board of Education legacy. The solutions will not be easy.
They may have to involve the rejuvenation of entire
cities, along the lines of what has happened here in
Stamford. These young people will be the parents, school
board members, teachers, administrators, sociologists,
economists, legislators, lawyers, judges, even Governor to
make sure that the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education
comes to full fruition in the complex world of this 21st
Century. We can only ask that they always be guided by the
fundamental precepts of that "shining beacon" that started
the civil rights movement, and that the solutions be
formulated - not by riot or violence or anger – but by
peaceful, orderly, reasoned discussion and deliberation -
in the spirit of Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren – under
the Rule of Law.
Alfred J. Jennings, Jr.