In a year when the nation has marked monumental landmarks of civil rights achievements of the past such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) used the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education as an opportunity to demand better public education for the nation’s students. The organization converged on Topeka, Kansas the home of the plaintiffs of the famous school desegregation case to demand an improvement in public education. Teachers, students, parents and advocates all came out for a rally at the state capitol. Impassioned speeches were made, the crowd chanted and the audience left motivated. Unlike the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington the events commemorating Brown served as a call to action to engage politicians to change the way business is done in order to make public schools better for all students.
AFT President Randi Weingarten noted that there were several events across the nation marking the day but told EBONY that there was special significance in coming back to Kansas to mark the occasion, calling Topeka “hallowed ground.” Kansas is again home to an important educational political battle as Republican governor Sam Brownback is under pressure from teachers unions and public school advocates for his handling of the state education budget. The Kansas Supreme Court decided the way the state had been funding education was unconstitutional and resulted in poor school districts being harmed. Weingarten said the case 60 years ago established “the legal imperative of Brown, and now today we have to answer the moral imperative.” With numbers that show Black students lagging behind their White and Asian counterparts in in many school districts, teachers, politicians and parents are all looking for ways to close the achievement gap, most notably the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans and certain innovative–though often controversial—efforts in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, PA and Newark, NJ.
The “privatization” or “charterization” of public schools is hotly contested. Those who support public schools and teachers unions are more inclined to think better schools happen when the community, teachers and parents are all mutually invested. Dr. Rodney Williams, pastor of Swope Park United Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, called for better wrap around services from churches to help supplement the needs of students. He told EBONY that his church has relationships with nearby schools where they identify the needs of the students or families and help to assist in aiding the young people, providing both “mentorship and advocates for the needs of the students.” The city of Cincinnati has seen tangible benefits from community investment in schools. According to Weingarten, in one high poverty area in Cincinnati, the graduation rate went from about 50% to 80% in ten years because of wrap around services.
In attendance at the rally was Lucinda Noches Talbert, the granddaughter of one of the original plaintiffs in the Brown case Lucinda Todd. Talbert told EBONY that “the landmark decision was the foundation for what essentially became our civil rights movement” referring to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all subsequent legislation addressing segregation and civil rights that followed the Brown decision. But as the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the historic court case, a look back at the difficult fight for educational equality shows not every school district responded kindly to the Brown decision or the instructions to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” In Prince Edward County, VA rather than integrate the county closed its entire public school system. The county then provided White students with private schools to attend while Black students in the county were left to fend for themselves.
Sixty years after Brown, the education system has found ways to re-inscribe segregation. Much of it has been tied to White flight and suburbanization. In other instances we’ve seen schools segregated on economic lines. Whatever the case the 60th anniversary of the momentous case charged educators and activists to call for reform to the way public education is administered throughout the nation. The question remains: will policy makers have the appetite to make race-based changes to educational public policy? It took a courageous court moved by world-class lawyers 60 years ago. The AFT and their supporters can only hope the work they do now will be enough today.