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It’s been 70 years since Brown v. Board of Education. The US is still trying to achieve the promise of integration.

Originally Published: 17 MAY 24 00:01 ET

By Chandelis Duster, Nicquel Terry Ellis and Alex Leeds Matthews, CNN

(CNN) — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas – the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional in the United States – remains one of the most consequential court cases in American history.

As the nation commemorates the ruling’s 70th anniversary, civil rights leaders and advocates tell CNN the case may have paved the way for more equal and integrated schools, but fierce – and continued – opposition to integration means the ruling in no way assured the end of segregated education in the United States.

Although progress has undoubtedly been made over the decades, research shows many school districts today are racially segregated because they are divided along residential and economic lines. At times, federal courts have intervened, ordering some school districts to execute plans to integrate Black and Latino students with their White counterparts to improve educational opportunities.

Gary Orfield, a professor at UCLA and co-director of the university’s Civil Rights Project, said although there’s been a steady increase in enrollment of non-White students in public schools, his research shows more students attend schools that are “intensely segregated” now than they did 30 years ago.

That’s when the Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell that court-ordered desegregation plans were “not intended to operate in perpetuity,” allowing more segregation to take place over time as school districts reverted to neighborhood zoning.

De facto segregation persists today, Orfield said, because many states have abandoned efforts to enforce integration.

“There are many places where courts ended desegregation orders that had been accepted. A great many of the magnet schools that had been integrated for decades under court orders were resegregated,” he said. “These were such tragic changes, throwing away real successes in a very polarized country.”

A ‘massive resistance’ to integration

Historically, efforts to desegregate schools were at times met with violent resistance from White Americans.

In response to the Brown decision, 101 southern lawmakers – roughly a fifth of Congress – signed what would become known as the “Southern Manifesto,” which encouraged states to “resist forced integration by any lawful means.”

“If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order, I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South,” Virginia Sen. Harry Flood Byrd said in the days after the ruling was announced.

That “massive resistance” campaign spread throughout southern states.

In 1957, three years after the Brown ruling, all eyes turned to Little Rock Central High in Arkansas as nine Black students were escorted into the school by soldiers in the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The students are known today as the Little Rock Nine.

Then, in 1965, a legal battle over integration in Mississippi began that would last more than 50 years.

That year, Dianna Cowan White’s parents listed her as the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Bolivar County Board of Education, now the Cleveland School District, in Cleveland, Mississippi, because the district still forced Black students to attend an all-Black school.

The district fought the lawsuit for more than five decades and in 2016, it would become one of the last in the country to officially desegregate, CNN previously reported.

That ruling, advocates say, signaled that the fight to integrate schools was far from over.

According to Orfield’s research, which examines school integration across the country, desegregation efforts peaked in the 1980s and there’s since been a decline in the percentage of Black students attending majority-White schools.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall – who argued the original Brown v. Board of Education case as a lawyer – wrote the dissenting opinion in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, the 1991 Supreme Court decision that released school districts from desegregation orders.

“The majority today suggests that 13 years of desegregation was enough,” Marshall wrote, adding that in his view, an order to lift any desegregation decree “must take into account the unique harm” associated with racially segregated schools and “must expressly demand the elimination of such schools.”

But even in schools that are integrated, racist bullying and discrimination persists. From 2018 to 2022, more than 4,300 hate crimes were reported in schools, with the largest number of alleged offenses being motivated by anti-Black bias, according to a report from the Department of Justice released in January.

‘Vestiges of segregation’

As of 2020, more than 700 school districts and charter schools were under a legal desegregation order or voluntary agreement to desegregate, according to the Century Foundation, an independent think tank that works toward equity in education, among other goals.

Leslie Fenwick, dean emeritus and professor at the Howard University School of Education, told CNN the decades of opposition to integration efforts has also led to a decrease in the number of Black educators. She explores the unintended consequences to the Brown decision in her book, “Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: The Untold Story of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership.”

“We never define segregation the right way. In everybody’s mind still, when we say segregation, we’re only focused on students,” she told CNN. “The great failing, not of the decision, but of massive resistance to the decision, was that we wiped out 100,000 Black principals and teachers who were fired, dismissed and demoted.”

The original Brown v. Board of Education case was also litigated by lawyers with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s first civil rights law firm, which Marshall founded in 1940.

Since the Brown ruling, the civil rights legal group says it has “sued hundreds of school districts across the country to vindicate the promise of Brown.”

Today, there are more than 200 open school desegregation cases currently on the federal dockets, according to the LDF, which estimates its lawyers are handling about a hundred of those cases.

Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel and co-manager of the Equal Protection Initiative at the LDF, said these lawsuits are necessary because the “vestiges of school segregation” still exist today.

Young said many majority-White schools are often better equipped with educational resources and better trained staff than majority-Black schools in the same school district. She noted other disparities include a lack of screenings for gifted programscollege prep programs and extracurricular activity offerings, and lower graduation rates.

The anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education comes nearly a year after the Supreme Court gutted affirmative action in higher education, which sparked a conservative-led movement to outlaw diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at public colleges and universities.

Some critics of DEI say the programs are discriminatory against White Americans. But civil rights advocates and legal scholars tell CNN that arguments to end affirmative action and curb DEI are often premised on the idea that America has already achieved racial equality in education – a notion they say is far from the truth.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said he hasn’t been surprised by the culture war that’s now playing out in school districts across the country because “history has taught us that progress is not made in a straight line.”

“We will continue to see these reactions until more citizens realize that equal protection under the law, our ability to grow and prosper as a nation, will be based on our diversity and not on a single culture or racial identity,” Johnson said.

Dianna Cowan White told CNN her parents were able to enroll her in an all-White school while their legal case against the Bolivar School District wound through the courts.

More than 50 years later, she says she can still recall how her 6th grade classmates taunted her, often saying “go back to where you came from” or, “did you paint your skin black?”

“They did not want me there,” White told CNN. “I felt like I was alone.”

But she also recalled the all-White school had better quality books, and was teaching a curriculum that was far more advanced than the Black school she had previously attended in the same district.

The experience ultimately influenced her decision to send her children to racially diverse schools, despite the racism she encountered, because she felt they would have better opportunities.

White said when she learned of the judge’s ruling to desegregate the school district in 2016 her first reaction was, “it was about time.”

“We are in the 21st century, when do you let it go?”

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