A black student, Nathaniel Steward, 17, recites his lesson surrounded by white fellows and others black students on May 21, 1954 at the Saint-Dominique school in Washington, where for the first time the Brown v Board of Education decision was applied.

A black student, Nathaniel Steward, 17, recites his lesson surrounded by white fellows and others black students on May 21, 1954 at the Saint-Dominique school in Washington, where for the first time the Brown v Board of Education decision was applied.

In the decades following the Civil War, many states enacted laws that required racial segregation of public facilities, restaurants and schools. In the 1930s, the NAACP began to challenge these so-called “Jim Crow” laws in various states. Then, in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously held that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But it took years for the new law to be implemented, especially in the southern states. Guest host Steve Roberts and guests discuss the history of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and how it changed America.


  • Isabel Wilkerson Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns."
  • Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) Delegate to the United States Congress representing the District of Columbia; Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
  • Sherrilyn Ifill President and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund
  • Stanley Brand Partner, Brand Law Group and distinguished fellow in law and government, Penn State University, Dickinson School of Law; former counsel to House of Representatives (1976-83)

The Aftermath Of Brown v. Board of Education

Even after the Supreme Court said segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, it took years for the new law to be implemented, especially in the southern states.

These photos share a glimpse of schools across the southern U.S. as they struggled with the new legislation.


  • 10:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She still has a cold but hopes to be back soon. Sixty years ago this week, the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in America's public schools. But southern states resisted, and it took years for integration to actually happen.

  • 10:07:16

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio to talk about the history of the landmark decision and its aftermath: Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Defense Fund, Stan Brand of the Brand Law Group, also teaches law at Penn State, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton who has represented the District now for many years. And joining me from a studio in Atlanta, Ga., we have journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Journey of America's Great Migration."

  • 10:07:45

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSWelcome to you all. Thanks for being with us this morning.

  • 10:07:47


  • 10:07:48

    REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONThank you for having us.

  • 10:07:49

    ROBERTSAnd we'd like you to join our conversation on this historic day. 1-800-433-8850, as always, is our number. Email drshow@wamu.org and our website, www.drshow.org. We have a poll up. We're asking you, our listeners, to answer some questions about the whole issue of desegregation. So if you'd like to participate in that as well, we really welcome your participation. Congresswoman Norton, 60 years ago, you were a student here in Washington D.C. in a segregated high school, Dunbar High School. Tell us what it was like.

  • 10:08:30

    NORTONWell, for me, it was a very memorable moment because Dunbar made it memorable. The principal -- it was in the afternoon. It may have been about time school was about to let out, and there came a chime, which is when you knew there was an announcement to be made. Normally, it was nothing to write home about. And he said in a most solemn voice that the Supreme Court had just declared schools like Dunbar, like the school where we sat, to be unconstitutionally segregated and that there should be schools now where black and white children can go together in the same school.

  • 10:09:17

    NORTONDunbar High School was a unique place. I was surrounded by teachers, a good many of whom had PhDs -- because if you were black and had a PhD, there weren't a lot of places to use it, and Dunbar was one of the places that it was used -- and I saw teachers with tears in their eyes. This was a moment that they understood was a historic moment in our country and for our school, and I'll never forget it.

  • 10:09:49

    ROBERTSAnd the pattern of segregation that was reflected in Dunbar reflected in the discrimination against your teachers pervaded Washington society at that moment.

  • 10:09:59

    NORTONWe forget in the progressive town now where black and white people live so closely, work so closely together, that Washington was up South. It was, in every way, a city segregated by the Congress of the United States, by the way, where not only were neighborhoods segregated, but you couldn't go into public accommodations downtown in order to integrate.

  • 10:10:25

    NORTONHeck's department store, there had to be a -- the old Heck's department store at 7th and G, there had to be a picket line, even though you could buy there. The only thing that wasn't segregated in the District of Columbia were the streetcars and the main library, the Carnegie Library downtown, courtesy of the Congress.

  • 10:10:45

    NORTONThere was some of the Congress that thought the main library shouldn't be segregated, and Washington has always been in the center between the North and the South. You didn't have it here because of a compromise that existed when they decided to pay the debts of one part of the country in order to get the south to have control over the Capitol.

  • 10:11:13

    ROBERTSWell, Isabel Wilkerson, I want to bring you in because of your wonderful book on the subject of black migration to the north. You write, "Really at the moment of Brown vs. Board of Education, we were two countries in one." What did you mean by that?

  • 10:11:28

    MS. ISABEL WILKERSONWe were two countries in one because we had an entire, very large region of our country that was existing under a caste system in which very basic things were segregated. It was against the law, for example, for a black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham so that when you think about a city such as Washington D.C., which was a hybrid city, a border city, it, in some ways, represented the midpoint of that dichotomy of these two countries in one.

  • 10:11:56

    ROBERTSAnd you also write very vividly about the penalties for crossing the line and breaking the code, which was both a legal code as well as a product of social custom.

  • 10:12:11

    WILKERSONIt was a social hierarchy, a caste system, in which any breach of this caste system could literally mean one's life so that every four days somewhere in the South during the first four decades of the 20th century, an African-American was lynched for some perceived breach of that caste system. And so for that reason, places like Washington D.C. and places like, obviously, beyond that to New York and to Chicago became these beckoning places where people arrived in such large numbers. And their children entering these schools helped to change, in some ways, our perception of what was possible for people who'd been isolated for so long.

  • 10:12:50

    ROBERTSAnd, Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP, long before Brown, had started to develop a legal doctrine. Talk about the Plessy case which really was the reigning case law at the time and the evolving legal strategy to challenge it.

  • 10:13:08

    IFILLYeah. You have to go back before Plessy, of course, to the Civil War amendments, the three constitutional amendments that were passed at the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment ending slavery, the 14th Amendment insisting that blacks were citizens, that those who were born here in the United State were citizens and require an equal protection and due process, and then the 15th amendment insuring that states could not deny the right to vote based on race, color or national origin.

  • 10:13:31

    IFILLThat should have ushered in and did usher in, actually, an extraordinary period of black enfranchisement and shifts in this country. That period ended, that reconstruction period ended in the late 1800s when a number of factors took place. But certainly the culminating factor was the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that you talk about in 1896 in which the Supreme Court essentially said that states could segregate, that separate but equal was constitutional.

  • 10:13:59

    IFILLAnd Chief Justice Roger Taney, of course, in that opinion observed that in American society at that moment, the black man had really not rights that the white man was bound to respect and so for the ensuing decades thereafter...

  • 10:14:12

    ROBERTSAnd therefore basically gutting the force of the amendments.

  • 10:14:15

    IFILLEssentially taking away, really, the power, the promise, the intention of the 14th amendment. And states, of course, then stepped up their efforts to subordinate blacks and that's worth saying. Segregation was not just about insuring that there were two separate tracks that we equal. It was for the purpose of subordinating black people.

  • 10:14:37

    IFILLIt was to create the second class status of black people and that's what made the Brown decision so significant beyond the education frame because essentially what Brown did was it reached back to the 19th century and it made those words of the 14th amendment true and it essentially said that segregation violates the equal protection of the laws and it recognized the subordinating principle within segregation.

  • 10:15:03

    IFILLSo you essentially had, in the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court of the United States articulating the equal citizenship of black people and that's why Brown literally ushers in the greatest change in American society, perhaps in its entire history.

  • 10:15:19

    ROBERTSBut, Stan Brand, even with Brown, the ability to enforce Brown was still very limited and it wasn't -- it was only the beginning of the revolution, not the end of it.

  • 10:15:30

    MR. STANLEY BRANDRight. Then we fought a 30-year judicial war to implement Brown and to make sure that the rights were guaranteed. You know, this was also a time of this court moving in a lot of other directions, guaranteeing individual rights to defendants, right to counsel and Miranda, the right to understand what your legal rights were when you're in custodial...

  • 10:16:00

    ROBERTSBut you worked on Capitol Hill, and it really -- the ability to implement Brown really then depended on the civil rights legislation of the '60s to really bring it to fruition.

  • 10:16:15

    BRANDRight. And, you know, we had a series of laws passed to implement it, and, of course, those also had to be litigated and enforced through the federal power. They weren't self-executing.

  • 10:16:30


  • 10:16:30

    IFILLIt's really important to talk about what happened immediately after the Brown decision because, almost immediately, you had leaders in the South, political leaders, saying, we will not follow this Supreme Court decision, right? You had the announcement of massive resistance. And before we get to talking therefore about the civil rights laws and about Congress, we should remember that in the South, there was a concerted effort -- actually there were 101 congressman who signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956 declaring their determination to resist Brown at all costs.

  • 10:16:56

    IFILLYou had almost every governor in the South saying, we will not allow black and white children to go to school together. Most of us know about the Little Rock Nine case in 1958 and the effort to keep black children out of Central High School. In jurisdictions that even began right after Brown to begin to integrate, you had essentially southern segregationists' forces who intimidated even the schools that were going to try and comply with Brown.

  • 10:17:19

    IFILLSo all over the South, you had a concerted effort, from the highest levels, from elected leaders to civic leaders, to parents to those in the community to make sure that Brown never was, in fact, implemented.

  • 10:17:30

    BRANDAnd that wasn't limited. Congress itself, I found joint resolutions introduced to strip the court of the ability to interpret the constitution in this way and so the reaction wasn't just in the South. It was in the Congress itself against the court and what was seen as maybe the first example and the most dramatic of traditional activism.

  • 10:17:52

    ROBERTSAnd quickly, Stan Brand, what changed that? What then lead to the civil right bill of the '60s, which helped bring more power of enforcement behind the...

  • 10:18:03

    BRANDWell, I guess, I'd say Lyndon Johnson and the passage of the law, which mandated that these things be implemented.

  • 10:18:11

    NORTONWell, infamously, schools were closed, for example, in Virginia, and they tried to make up for that by recognizing these children who couldn't go to school at all. But in D.C., schools were integrated immediately, and literally, the next year -- and there began to be huge white flights from the District of Columbia.

  • 10:18:34

    ROBERTSWe want to get back to whole question of the implementation of the civil rights bill as soon as we come back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. Please stay with us. A lot more to talk about on this historic anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.

  • 10:20:00

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane, and our subject today, the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. Let's listen to Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice who brought the famous case and what he had to say about the aftermath.

  • 10:20:22

    THURGOOD MARSHALLWell, I do not think that President Eisenhower has done anywhere near what he could have done. I wonder whether it's too late. Personally, I don't think it's too late, but I think at some -- the president should have, shortly after the decisions or at least by now, have gotten on a television network or radio and spoken as the chief executive of this government to the good people of the South urging them to support the decision of the Supreme Court as the law of the land, whether they believed in it or not and to use the full influence of his position as president to bring about peaceful solution of this problem.

  • 10:21:05

    THURGOOD MARSHALLI think he was obliged to do that, and I think that his failure to do so does not help us at all, especially when we realize that, as a result of the failure of the good forces to take over, we have allowed these other forces like the white citizens councils and the Klan to threaten and intimidate good people. Moral leadership should come from the top executive of the government. It's his responsibility, and he can't duck it.

  • 10:21:37

    ROBERTSSherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, you were talking about massive resistance. And this is what Thurgood Marshall was talking about. And bring us back to that time and the tension between the decision and the resistance.

  • 10:21:54

    IFILLWell, remember what they're resisting. They're resisting a decision of the United States Supreme Court. So we're in a real fallout crisis in this country. And they're doing it in these jurisdictions by a variety of means. Congressman Norton talked about the closure of schools. This happened in Virginia, Prince Edward County. You had the setting up of private white academies that used public funds for their children to go to school. And LDF had to litigate and challenge that. Prince Edward County closed the schools for five years rather than integrate.

  • 10:22:27

    IFILLYou had all kinds of subversive means that were used to try and make Brown not happen. And what Thurgood Marshall, who's the first director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund is essentially saying that Eisenhower has to step up and be a moral leader because we're in a crisis. And ultimately, that speech -- Eisenhower ends up having to give that speech when he has to call out the National Guard to protected those nine teenagers who are trying to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1958.

  • 10:22:55

    IFILLAnd so he ends up having to do it. But what Marshall is saying is, this is what should've happened after the decision. In some ways, this is kind of the role of the president we probably take for granted more today, that the president is supposed to use the bully pulpit and be the moral leader. And we saw John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson give speeches at important moments when this country was rent asunder. And Marshall is saying, this is what Eisenhower should've done.

  • 10:23:17

    ROBERTSIsabel Wilkerson, talk from your research about the situation in the South and what the motives were, what the motions were, the impulses that led to the resistance that Thurgood Marshall was talking about.

  • 10:23:31

    WILKERSONWell, this takes us back, as Sherrilyn Ifill said, to the underlying assumptions to the desire to subordinate a group of people who had been the lowest cast people in our country. At the time that Brown was passed -- was voted on, decided this was a country where a good portion of the United States had required segregation.

  • 10:23:58

    WILKERSONAnd the rest of the country, with the exception of the northeast, had made it optional. In other words, it was either -- these other states were either silent or neutral on the idea. And so you're going -- this is speaking to the desire to subordinate and control a group of people that had its roots going back to enslavement and to the Civil War. And this brought the -- essentially the decision itself spoke to the laws but did not speak to what was going on in the hearts of people who were seeking to resist it. This goes back so long that it goes to the very identity of many people in our country.

  • 10:24:37

    NORTONCould I say something about the resistance and how it gave rise to the strengthening of the civil rights movement? The Eisenhower attitude, which was to somehow walk a line, resulted in a fight for -- a cartoon I remember that said, I'm against those who want to close the schools, and I'm against those who want to keep them open. I mean, this just -- nothing was his leadership.

  • 10:25:07

    NORTONAnd in 1957 -- by then I'm in college -- there is the first march on Washington. And that doesn't come out of a desire for public accommodations. The sit-in movement hadn't begun. It doesn't even come out of what King had done in Montgomery. It comes out of the Brown decision.

  • 10:25:31

    NORTONAnd the theme of -- I remember going 12 hours in a car to come to this march -- the theme of the march was integrate the schools because these -- and it was led by Martin Luther King, and the participants were almost exclusively Southern congregations. It was not people from the north and the west and all...

  • 10:25:55

    ROBERTSThose were not the freedom riders.

  • 10:25:56

    NORTONIt really wasn't.

  • 10:25:56

    ROBERTSIt was very different.

  • 10:25:57

    NORTONIt was church groups brought by Southern ministers to the Washington Monument to protest the fact that nothing was being done in Washington to integrate the schools of the United States.

  • 10:26:10

    ROBERTSSo what you're saying is a very important point, that Brown had a larger effect beyond the...

  • 10:26:15

    NORTONCatalytic effect, yes.

  • 10:26:16

    ROBERTS...beyond the legality...

  • 10:26:18

    IFILLThe famous give us the ballot speech from Martin Luther King was about Brown. It was a speech given on the anniversary of the Brown decision, and just the way Congresswoman Norton describes.

  • 10:26:27

    ROBERTSAnd, Stan, how did this lead to Lead Rock then? I mean, this was a moment when the balance, to some extent, shifted. And Eisenhower went from this more passive ambivalent stance to being forced to be more aggressive.

  • 10:26:39

    BRANDWell, you know, Alexander Bickel, the late Yale professor famously said, the least dangerous branch is the court. I mean, the court doesn't have an army. It doesn't have appropriations. How does it force -- well, finally the feds were forced to come in and use their police power to say this is the law of the land and this is how it's going to be implemented.

  • 10:26:57

    ROBERTSAnd we have a clip from President Eisenhower at that moment that we'd like to play for you.

  • 10:27:03

    PRESIDENT EISENHOWERThis morning the mob again gathered in front of the Central High School of Little Rock, obviously for the purpose of again preventing the carrying out of the court's order relating to the admission of negro children to that school. Whenever normal agencies prove inadequate to the task and it becomes necessary for the executive branch of the federal government to use its powers and authority to uphold federal courts, the president's responsibility is inescapable.

  • 10:27:40

    PRESIDENT EISENHOWERIn accordance with that responsibility, I have today issued an executive order directing the use of troops under federal authority to aid in the execution of federal law at Little Rock, Ark.

  • 10:27:56

    ROBERTSSherrilyn Ifill, tell us the significance of those words of a president who had been ambivalent, as Congresswoman Norton pointed out, in the face of massive resistance from the South comes to that moment where he says, I'm putting the power of the federal government behind this order.

  • 10:28:11

    IFILLThis is huge. I mean, this is a case -- I taught, you know, constitutional law for many years, and no matter what I taught Cooper vs. Aaron. That was the Little Rock Nine case. And then you have the president essentially deploying the National Guard to protect black children. It's significant in two ways. First of all, it's significant because black children have to be protected by troops, children who just want to go to school. So the starkness of the image, the visuals of it, the realities of it, actually begin to get at some of the moral hearts and minds issue that Isabel Wilkerson was talking about.

  • 10:28:46

    IFILLAnd then you have the President of the United States who's saying, I stand with -- I have to stand with the edicts of the United States Supreme Court. And in order to preserve our country, I must deploy these troops to protect these children. And of course, we've all seen the images of what it looked like to have those troops on the grounds of a school. But it could not be starker. It could not be a more important moment in having people recognize the significance and ultimately the inevitability of Brown, which is particularly important as well.

  • 10:29:21

    ROBERTSIsabel Wilkerson, talk from your perspective and your research about the impact of Little Rock and the president's speech and the images that Sherrilyn Ifill has talked about.

  • 10:29:34

    WILKERSONI think that the power of this moment is the fact that it's focusing on the children. And there's nothing more pure and innocent than a child's desire and need for education. And so when you see the images of a lone girl pushing her -- walking -- simply walking with her books through the crowd and other children, other young people who are hurling epithets and essentially surrounding her, we all have that in our minds as an indication of the depth of the challenge of the country at this moment.

  • 10:30:13

    WILKERSONAnd I'm also reminded also of Ruby Bridges who in 1960 was a little girl also, you know, who we are -- the indelible image of her, a little 6-year-old attempting to go to first grade in New Orleans. And then I'm also reminded of Brown himself. I mean, we haven't spoken about who Brown was. It was Oliver Brown, a welder in Topeka, Kansas who merely wanted his little girl Linda who was a third grader to be able to go to the school that was closest to them.

  • 10:30:44

    WILKERSONAs it turned out, Topeka was an integrated city residentially but it was not -- but the schools were not integrated and under high school age. And so his daughter had to walk six blocks and then catch a bus in order to get to the school. And was not able to go to school with children that she was surrounded by in her own neighborhood.

  • 10:31:06

    WILKERSONAnd so Oliver Brown was the named plaintiff in this case that will go down in history, has already made history. And that little girl was a little girl who was taken to school by her father and remembered to -- you know, into her late adulthood remembered sitting there while her father was arguing with the principal to see if she could get into the school. So these are about real people who were facing very basic desires to educate their children.

  • 10:31:37

    ROBERTSAnd, Congresswoman Norton, real people were also energized. You were talking about the marches -- the first march on Washington, largely forgotten by history. But then after Little Rock you get a whole new escalation of protests and demonstrations and demands. And connect the moment we've just been talking about to what happened next.

  • 10:32:02

    NORTONWell, so three years after Brown you get the first march on Washington. It is about the schools, specifically about the schools. With the Little Rock, what you have -- what made -- and it's really important -- and what the school children -- what -- Eisenhower had to act because the governor had defied federal powers. This is very important. It's not just the Supreme Court, it's federal power. It was a direct challenge to federal power, much like the Civil War. Then when do you get the first sit-ins? You get them in 1960. And who is it? It's school children, except they're in college.

  • 10:32:49

    BRANDThey graduated.

  • 10:32:50

    NORTONAnd they're full of this sense of protests that begins with the Montgomery bus boycott. And that -- the '50s, the bus boycott and the decision -- the Brown decision are themselves catalytic moments.

  • 10:33:13

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Catalytic moments that helped create what? I mean, bring the story forward, Sherrilyn.

  • 10:33:23

    IFILLWell, I want to bring it back and then forward. So you had asked earlier -- and I think it's important to put this in the mix about the strategy. So first of all, Brown is the culmination of a 20-year strategy by lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It begins with the vision of Charles Hamilton Houston. And they are seeking to deal with this issue of segregation because they recognize the centrality of education, because they recognize segregation as subordinating.

  • 10:33:48

    IFILLThey begin by suing first the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore in 1935. And they win that case in municipal court in Baltimore City. And then they start going across the country litigating these cases at the graduate school level, at the law school level, all the while wanting to get to K through 12, but believing that they were essentially knocking out the foundations of segregated education by starting at the high level.

  • 10:34:13

    IFILLAnd sure enough, when they get to Brown, you do get this massive resistance. One of the things that's important to remember in Brown is that the expert witnesses who testified -- you know, you've heard about the doll test -- they certainly testified about the way in which segregation harmed black children. But those same social scientists also testified that segregation twisted the social development of white children, that it created confusion and moral cynicism. And what you saw outside Little Rock High School really was the culmination of that. And it spurred people to move.

  • 10:34:43

    IFILLThere's a reason why the heart of the civil rights movement begins to happen after Brown. We shouldn't underestimate what it meant for the Supreme Court to articulate and for everyone to hear the equal citizenship of black people. And Brown becomes the frame that allows people to move forward. And it's the same lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who were bailing out the folks who were engaging in sit-ins and engaging in protests and the lawyers for Martin Luther King. And these two come together in this movement that changes America.

  • 10:35:13

    ROBERTSAnd Stan Brand, there was also a political dimension happening at the same time. You had the circumstance that Earl Warren, the Chief Justice, was appointed by a Republican kind of accidentally because, as I remember, as Brown was originally argued Fred Vincent was the Chief Justice and died...

  • 10:35:34

    BRANDBetween the first and second argument, yeah.

  • 10:35:34

    ROBERTSArguments and that -- so Warren, a Republican governor of California becomes Chief Justice. And politically he is able to, using his political skills within the court, create a unanimous decision which was a central dimension of its moral and legal impact.

  • 10:35:56

    BRANDYes. And we could look longingly at that period of the court where you have, not only unanimity but bipartisan endorsement. Which was absolutely critical, I think, for this least dangerous branch idea because again, the court has no real enforcement authority. It's got to rely on the chief executive and the Congress. And so for it to speak with one voice in a case like this was absolutely critical. I can't really think of another judicial decision that relied to that extent on the other branches enforcing its will. And it's significant, in terms of the history of the court, for that alone.

  • 10:36:42

    ROBERTSAnd of course Earl Warren paid a huge price in the sense that impeach Earl Warren signs spread out, but a sign of the massive resistance you were talking about, Sherrilyn.

  • 10:36:51

    IFILLIndeed, no question. He became, in many ways, the focal point of segregation as in those who were resistant to Brown. And that's why I think, you know, it's absolutely true, the unanimity of the decision was critically important. There needed to be no daylight between the justices on the principle (unintelligible)...

  • 10:37:06

    NORTONWell, it was very important that you had a Supreme Court Justice who had been a politician.

  • 10:37:10


  • 10:37:11

    ROBERTSAnd of which we have none. I mean, Sandra Day O'Connor was the last Supreme Court justice who had ever served an elective, so none of them have ever had. We're going to have to take a quick break here, but we're going to come back with your phone calls and your emails on this historic anniversary, the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane, and I'll be back with my guests in just a moment. So stay with us.

  • 10:39:57

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane on the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. I have four experts with me: Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Stan Brand of the Brand Law Group, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and on the phone from Atlanta, Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's written, "The Warmth of Other Suns."

  • 10:40:20

    ROBERTSAnd I'd like now to go to some of our callers and give them a chance to join our conversation here on "The Diane Rehm Show." So let's start first with Don, in Rochester, N.Y. Welcome.

  • 10:40:33

    DONThank you for taking my call. I would like to ask your panelists there what they think of the idea that 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that maybe it's reversed now. Maybe there's more segregation in the North than there is in the South. I live in a community of -- in a metropolitan, there's about 700,000 people, in a county that has that number of people. We have 19 different school districts in that metropolitan area.

  • 10:41:06

    DONThe city school district is overwhelming black and Hispanic, and poor. It's always, you know, having trouble meeting its educational needs. The suburban school districts are overwhelmingly white. There's very little integration between those two areas. My parents live in the South now. And every time I go to the South, I see instances of more integration there than I do up here.

  • 10:41:32

    DONEvery time I go to the small town they live in in Tennessee, we'll go to a restaurant. I see more mixed couples. And the last time I was there, I thought to myself, 60 years -- and it's mostly men, black men and white women. I say to myself, this man would have been lynched 60 years ago.

  • 10:41:53


  • 10:41:55

    DONAnd here he is sitting in a public restaurant with his family.

  • 10:42:00

    ROBERTSOK. Thanks very much, Don. We really appreciate your call. Stan, you want to…

  • 10:42:02

    BRANDWell, I worked as, you know, for Tip O'Neill. This issue wasn't just in the South. One of the bitterest…

  • 10:42:10


  • 10:42:10

    BRAND…most acrimonious results of the desegregation (unintelligible)…

  • 10:42:14

    ROBERTSAnd talk about massive resistance.

  • 10:42:15

    BRAND…happened in Boston. Arthur Garrity, the federal judge who was a friend of Tip's, received death threats, was burned in effigy when he enforced orders on the schools in South Boston. So we think of the South in terms of the major impact, but this was really a national issue.

  • 10:42:34


  • 10:42:34

    IFILLYeah. And in fact it's one of the things that made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so important, which, first of all, in its early provisions gave the federal government the right to sue schools that wouldn't comply with desegregation orders. But it also withheld federal funds from jurisdictions, programs, schools that were discriminating. I'm from New York City. We did not begin to integrate until the 1960s.

  • 10:42:59

    IFILLAnd really after the 1964 Civil Rights Act is when you begin to actually see integration in terms of the schools happening in the North. The North has been and remains deeply segregated. The caller is absolutely right about that. As a result of many policies, many of them promulgated by the federal government that have been deeply embedded and never really undone. Public housing was segregated by the requirement of the federal government.

  • 10:43:23

    IFILLWhen the federal government started giving mortgage insurance in 1934, they insisted on racially restrictive covenants in homes. So what we see today, the kind of results of segregation in the North, really comes out of deeply embedded policies that, despite the implementation of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, have never been fully undone. And that's very deeply connected to the issue of education segregation as well.

  • 10:43:44

    NORTONBut there's a caller. We need to respond directly to this caller's point. There will be people who say that Brown failed because of segregation now. By the way, also in the South, there have been resegregation of schools in the District of Columbia. There have been resegregation of schools all over the South.

  • 10:44:04

    NORTONThere have been segregation of schools in the North that were integrated years ago because of a phenomenon that we need to face, which is racial isolation, which is an economic and demographic problem. Much of it does go to housing segregation. But it goes to an economic divide, it goes to how and where people can live. And it does mean that we have to understand that Brown was about undoing state supported segregation. That's not what we're facing today. We're facing something far more complicated than that.

  • 10:44:51

    ROBERTSThat's a very good point. And I should tell our listeners that the second hour of "The Diane Rehm Show" today will be on exactly that topic. We're going to deal for a whole hour with exactly the topic you both have brought in. But I want to turn Diego, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:45:11

    DIEGOHi. I wanted to make a comment about how it's disturbing to think about that there's Southern senators and congressman that at the time they joined their parents at lynching or just mistreating black people. And now they're making laws like stand your ground, and they have the same ideology. But they just don't say it out loud. And I've seen discrimination from white people against Hispanics like me. When I was traveling to New York and I stopped by Georgia, I seen it. It hasn't stopped.

  • 10:45:55

    ROBERTSOK. I'm afraid your phone is breaking up, and our listeners are having trouble hearing you. But, Isabelle Wilkerson, a response to Diego's call?

  • 10:46:05

    WILKERSONYes. And speaking to the previous caller, the segregation that we see today and the enduring indications of discrimination that we live with today are merely symptoms of the history of divisions that go back for generations and for centuries. And that these hierarchies, the racial hierarchies that we live with today that Brown was speaking to -- Brown was speaking to the foundation of this caste system that I was speaking of before, that was a foundation of segregation in the South.

  • 10:46:38

    WILKERSONAnd when we think about what Chief Justice Warren said -- one of the things that he did when he brought the justices together was he asked them to think about the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was the honest belief and inferiority, the inferiority of black people. And that's one of the things that Brown addressed. We're talking about the idea that our, you know, do we have the right to segregate people on the basis of assumptions and stereotypes that are so longstanding?

  • 10:47:11

    WILKERSONAnd one of the things that came out of the, you know, we were speaking about the research that went into undergirding this case, was the work of this psychologist out of Columbia, Otto Klineberg. Very important work that we need to remind ourselves of today. And that was he looked at the performances of black children who had come from the South in the great migration and went to the North, went to New York.

  • 10:47:37

    WILKERSONThere they had opportunities that they wouldn't have had in the South, difficult though it may still have been in New York. And it turned out that while they were not performing as well when they first arrived, within four years they were up to the standards of the other children who were there already. And so this is an important thing that gets at the very undergirdings of what we live with today, which is the assumptions and the stereotypes and the unconscious bias that exists with us today and this is now our national challenge as a people.

  • 10:48:03

    ROBERTSNow, Stan Brand, I want to come to another dimension of this history. We've referred to the Civil Rights Bill several times. And you mentioned that they were passed with a southerner, Lyndon Johnson, as president. But also we talked about the role of Earl Warren, a Republican. And those bills could not have passes without the help of Republicans on Capitol Hill, Senator Dirksen from Illinois and Congressman McCulloch, who was largely lost to history, but from Ohio, was ranking Republican on the judiciary committee at the time.

  • 10:48:35

    ROBERTSAnd given the massive resistance, the southern manifesto in the late '50s, how do we get to the point where an alliance of a southern president and Republicans help pass a bill or several bills?

  • 10:48:48

    BRANDWell, if you re-read the history of Lyndon Johnson, the force of his personality, the force of his leadership on this was overwhelming. He was willing, in a sense, to sacrifice the Democratic Party in the South for the rest of history it seems.

  • 10:49:03

    ROBERTSHe predicted it would happen.

  • 10:49:05

    BRANDHe predicted it would happen, and he undertook it notwithstanding. Now, he had a lot of help with that on both sides of the aisle. This, to me, is a remarkable indication of the other side of that equation, of having the court's decision accepted on a broad basis. And that's essentially what happened in the Congress.

  • 10:49:25

    ROBERTSOn these kinds of issues today, Congresswoman Norton, the kind of cooperation we saw in the Civil Rights Bill across partisan lines, can you imagine that sort of thing happening in today's Congress?

  • 10:49:35

    NORTONWell, you really are seeing the worst -- I mean, remember, this is the least productive, the most polarized Congress in memory. But, as we speak, we're working with a Republican, Congressman Sensenbrenner...

  • 10:49:54


  • 10:49:55

    NORTON…on a bill which does have bipartisan support to revive the Voting Rights Act…

  • 10:49:59

    ROBERTSVoting Rights Act.

  • 10:49:59

    NORTON…which was completely undermined by the Supreme Court. Race does still bother right-wing Republicans. They do not want to be seen as the people who will, in fact, be cornered or fingered for racists and racial policies. So I would separate just a little bit, not like we're seeing a great deal of progress. But, for example, on this bill, instead of allowing, you know, all of us to get on the bill, we are having one Democrat, but one Republican, so it doesn't look like it's a bill that comes only from Democrats…

  • 10:50:41


  • 10:50:41

    NORTON…because we recognize how bipartisan this has to be. And with race we think that if we keep it up we will be able to revive the Voting Rights Act.

  • 10:50:54

    ROBERTSLet's turn to several more callers here. We have a few more minutes. And Judy, in Dallas, Texas, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:51:03

    JUDYGood morning. Thank you. Well, my comment is probably better for the next hour, but here in Texas, they've just been chipping away, chipping away at Brown. And I'm just disturbed because every school you go to, especially in Dallas and North Dallas, there are lines of cars. They don't have any bussing anymore. It's not segregate bussing, but just school bussing. So you have lines of cars, kids never get to interact with anybody else. They get out of the car, go to class, get back in the car.

  • 10:51:37

    JUDYSo the school bus -- it's not the school bus anymore. And then some districts are charging parents for school bus. And then you have this us-against-them, school vouchers. Then, if you get a voucher you can't get to the school that you want because they don't want those kind in our school. Look at Frisco, one of the biggest populations, you know, growing population. And it just makes me -- that it's just chipping away, and we're just quietly chipping away back to where it's those kids.

  • 10:52:08

    JUDYI don't want my kids with those kids. And I'm in my 50s, so -- and I remember all this. And I always thought it was so sad. And then you have the state messing with the preschool, the pre-K funding. I don't understand. So thanks a lot.

  • 10:52:24

    ROBERTSThank you very much. I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Sherrilyn Ifill?

  • 10:52:30

    IFILLWell, you know, we've been lauding the Warren court during this. And I think we should remember that the court also played a role in ultimately, in subsequent years, really dialing back the promise of Brown. When you heard one of the callers talking about, you know, suburban school districts versus urban school districts. It was the Supreme Court's decision in Milliken v. Bradley that essentially said you could not bus across district lines that allowed a phenomenon that I think Congresswoman Norton was beginning to refer to, which was white flight and which still is white flight, to be perpetuated.

  • 10:53:05

    IFILLAnd I would therefore disagree a little bit on kind of what Brown was getting at because, yes, Brown was getting at state-sponsored segregation and state-mandated segregation. But there are decisions that we make, policy decisions that we make in our society that support some of the decisions that actually keep our schools segregated or resegregate our schools.

  • 10:53:25

    IFILLAnd so the whole question of white flight and what it means to have a set of suburban school districts that are funded at a particular level, as opposed to urban school districts that are funded at a lesser level and that tend to have most minority students, that's a reality. It's a reality we can actually do something about. The question is do we have the will to do it.

  • 10:53:41

    ROBERTSWe have time for one or two more callers. And John, in Dallas, Texas, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." John?

  • 10:53:52

    JOHNWhen we speak about the setback policies and Jim Crow, we mustn't forget the role of President Wilson in resegregating the government after reconstruction, which integrated blacks into jobs in the military and the government itself. You can get an idea of the way Wilson thought about these things, by the fact that when he saw "Birth of a Nation," with members of the Supreme Court, he said -- his comment on the film was, "That's pretty much the way it was."

  • 10:54:29

    ROBERTSThank you very much for your call.

  • 10:54:30

    NORTONAnd, of course, Wilson was a Democrat. And he was responsible for resegregating cafeterias for the federal government, and doing all he could to bring segregation to Washington after reconstruction.

  • 10:54:45

    ROBERTSWe only have a couple more minutes. And I want to give each of you a chance, briefly, to sum up, on the 60th anniversary, what's the lasting legacy of this Brown decision that we're marking today. Isabel Wilkerson?

  • 10:54:59

    WILKERSONWell, it helped usher in the beginning of a revolution that would lead us to our modern America. However, it was the beginning of working with and dealing with this on a legislative level. But we continue to have the challenge of dealing with what's going on in the hearts and the minds of people, as we actually try to live out together as a country, multi-ethnic and multi-racial.

  • 10:55:21

    ROBERTSSherrilyn Ifill?

  • 10:55:23

    IFILLSo I'm the president now and director of counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, which is, you know, celebrating this anniversary. Thurgood Marshall was our first director of counsel. And we're constantly facing this question of how much do we celebrate and how much are we simply challenged, right, by the promise of Brown. And I've been trying to keep both of those things in my head at the same time. I think we do and we must celebrate.

  • 10:55:43

    IFILLI think we only don't celebrate if we forget how we came to live in the society that we, I think, in many ways take for granted, the ways in which we interact with people across race, the ways in which we, actually in many ways, live very diverse and integrated lives. We now breathe that like air. We don't even notice it anymore. But that was the progeny of Brown. And so we should celebrate the ushering in of this extraordinary period on American history.

  • 10:56:10

    IFILLAt the same time, we should always feel challenged by Brown. What is it that made these lawyers, these seven lawyers, who themselves, mostly had experienced Jim Crow, imagined that America could be better and executed it. It's a challenge to us to look at how change happens and to be as bold as they were in trying to make America better for everyone.

  • 10:56:27

    ROBERTSStan Brand?

  • 10:56:28

    BRANDNever underestimate a bold and unanimous Supreme Court, even as the branch that has the least power, ostensibly, among the three. And the way that they put this issue forward, and in a sense, changed the country.

  • 10:56:43

    ROBERTSEleanor Holmes Norton, final word?

  • 10:56:46

    NORTONLook, you want to know whether to celebrate, Sherrilyn? Legal Defense Fund lawyers had carried the struggle for almost -- for 75 years without a movement. Because of the brilliance of that strategy in getting the courts to say that separate but equal was wrong and unconstitutional, they are responsible -- or certainly partly responsible for giving birth to a movement which is -- what is really responsible for breaking the neck and the back of segregation in the United States.

  • 10:57:21

    ROBERTSThat's the final word from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Also with me this morning, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Stan Brand of the Brand Law Group and Penn State Law School. And by phone, from Atlanta, Ga., Isabel Wilkerson, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.

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