Brown versus the Board of Education

In 1951, thirteen families in the small community of Topeka, Kansas got together to do something about an unjust situation. The board of education of their community was allowing racial segregation in the school system based on an out of date 1879 law. The leader of this group of concerned parents was Oliver J. Brown and the outcome of what started out as a few parents trying to make life better for their children became one of the most infamous and influential supreme court cases in history known as Brown versus the Board of Education.

The practice of school segregation had become a common and accepted practice in American society despite many movements in the history of civil rights to stop the separation of black society from white. The justification that segregation provided a “separate but equal” setting which benefited education, the truth was it was a thinly veiled attempt to deprive African American children of the quality of education that all people need to excel in the modern world.

The case continued to gather momentum until it came before the Supreme Court in May of 1954. The decision was stunning and decisive when it came back 9-0. The statement of the court was brief, eloquent and to the point stating that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Now even such a definitive statement from the Supreme Court did not end the struggle between segregationists and those who would end the practice that deprived African American children of quality education. In 1957 the Arkansas governor tried to block the integration of schools in his state and the only thing that could stop him was the intervention of federal troops sent by President Eisenhower. A similar but much more well publicized event occurred in Alabama where Governor George Wallace physically blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama. It took the intervention of federal marshals to physically remove him to assure that the law of the land, as mandated by The Supreme Court, was carried out. And the law of the land then and forever since then was that segregation was illegal in this country.

Since this landmark decision, there have been other more crafty attempts to resurrect segregation. But over the decades, attitudes have shifted to where such views on how our social institutions are set up are considered old fashioned and uneducated.

The integration of the schools was an important step in the ongoing struggle to create a truly equal society and to improve the chances of black children to grow up with the same opportunities as all other children in this country. As more and more African American children became well educated, the black population has been able to make a strong contribution to the culture and to the advancement of knowledge in every discipline of learning. Further, the growing educated black population brought about the black middle class which equalized society from an economic point of view. As African Americans began to participate in all of the economic opportunities that middle class prosperity afforded them, the chances for whites, blacks and people of all races and cultures to mix has been healthy to heal the scars of racism and slowly erase divisions in the culture.

But maybe the most important outcome of integration of the schools is the opportunity it has given for children of all races to learn, play and grow together. As young black and white students have attended classes, gone to football games and hung out at pep rallies together, they have become friends. They have had chances to work together on teams and socialize under many situations and as that has become the social norm, racism began to evaporate from the hearts of young America.

As a result, youth of modern times look on racism as a strange and primitive viewpoint from long ago and not in step with an up to date view of the world. This kind of true acceptance both by whites toward blacks and by blacks toward whites will go further to finally end racial separation and intolerance more than any riot or protest or march or even ruling from the Supreme Court could ever do. And we have Oliver Brown and that small group of parents from Topeka, Kansas to thank for this. By doing what was best for their kids, they did something wonderful for all of America’s children both now and for generations to come.

Booker T. Washington

As you travel this great nation, it is no accident you will see a lot of schools given the name of Booker T. Washington. That is because this great black educator and leader set the standard and carved out a new path in the years right after the fall of slavery to lead his people to a better way. He showed his people a way of education, accomplishment, achievement and the prosperity that naturally comes with those goals.

In 1901, the biography of Booker T. Washington was published with the fitting title Up From Slavery. Washington’s struggle to rise up from the limitations of a slave’s life to be come one of the most respected black leaders in America is one of the reasons he is revered in black history as one of the greats who really made a difference for his people.

When Booker T. Washington’s family was freed from slavery in Virginia, young Booker immediately began pursuing the path where he would make his mark, in education. Achieving success at Hampton University and then at Wayland Seminary, he was soon to pioneer new achievements for African Americans in higher education, becoming one of the first leaders of the Tuskegee University in Alabama.

But it was more than just academic success that marked Washington’s career. He became prominent in many areas of leadership becoming a spokesperson for post slavery black America to the powerful and influential in this country. Book T. Washington lived the concept that the pen was mightier than the sword and was an early voice for moderation and learning to excel within the institutions and customs of America rather than deal in violence.

One of Washington’s great strengths was finding partnership and coalitions between leaders of many communities to improve the opportunities for education and excellence for the African American community of the time. One of the most influential speeches of black history was given by Washington and became known as the Atlanta Address of 1895 in which Washington, speaking to a largely white audience instigated a profound change in way economic opportunity and hiring was done in America at its time. In that one speech he…

* Called up on the black community to become part of the economy and industry of America thus beginning the healing process that was so necessary at the time.

* Stated without reservation that the south was the region of the country where there were the greatest opportunities for black employment. By bringing together the strong black labor force with an economy in the midst of recovery from the civil war, Washington may have been one of the chief architects for the recovery of the south from the ravages of that war.

* Introduced to the economic institutions predominantly run by the white citizens of the country that it made more sense to take advantage of the large resident black population for reliable workers than to look to immigrants. The outcome was a boom in employment for the black community that was a huge leap forward in the struggle to rise up out of slavery.

The Atlanta Address of 1895 propelled Booker T. Washington into national prominence becoming a healing voice and a powerful catalyst for change in this country. Using his sophisticated network of supporters from every arena of leadership including political, academic and business leaders, Washington worked tirelessly to provide hope and new opportunities for black families trying to make their way in America.

His work ethic was profound and produced change at a rate that was phenomenal by any standard. But it took a toll on Washington who died relatively young, at the age of 59 from exhaustion and overwork. But this too points out the tremendous drive and devotion this important black leader had to use all of his talents, his intellect and his contacts to better the lives of black people and speed the road to acceptance and integration across America. We all owe a Booker T. Washington a great deal of gratitude for being “the man of the hour” to lead all people forward, black and white, to find ways to work together in partnership rather than with distrust or violence to achieve a better America for everyone.

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Black Power

In the history of African Americans in this country, there have been some tremendous movements and images that seem to capture the mood of the country and the black community at that time. And this one phrase “black power” is without a doubt one of the most simple and elegant statements of pride and unity in the black community. But it was also a phrase that came to represent the more violent and objectionable side of the struggle for equality in the black community. And that makes it a controversial phrase then and now.

Probably the greatest image of black power is the strong hand of a black man, clenched in a black glove and raised in the air in defiance and pride. Never has that salute been used so perfectly as it was at the 1968 Olympics when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised the black power fist complete with black glove as they received their medals for their performances at those Olympic Games.

The phrase “black power” was not coined in a march or riot as might be implied. It was actually created by Robert Williams, the head of the NAACP in the early sixties. But it really started becoming a “street term” when it was adopted by Makasa Dada and Stokely Carmichael, founders of The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which was the precursor to the famous Black Panther Party.

Sadly the black power movement became characterized by radical elements that went much further than seeking the goals of Martin Luther King and the rest of the civil rights movement’s leadership. These radical elements sought black separation and social change by violent means. And so in a time when there was tremendous turmoil in the country because of the violence in Vietnam and on the streets of America because of that social strife, The Black Panthers and other fringe groups sewed fear and hatred in response to racism which at times made it more difficult to achieve long lasting change.

But there is good to be seen even in some of the darker elements of black history and the leadership who looked to find the best way forward for African Americans. Sometimes it is necessary for the radical elements to make themselves known so reasonable members of a community can know the outer limits and find compromise. This was a value to the black power movement because it did charge the discussion, albeit with violence and made the importance of reasonable Americans to come together to seek peaceful change all the more important.

But there is another good that came from the black power movement. Those images of the raised fist were images of a pride and a willingness to stand up for the rights of black Americans. They inspired a generation of young people to become more politically active, to stand up in their own world and make that statement made famous by James Brown “Say it Loud. I’m Black and I’m Proud.” That pride is an important thing and for young people to find. They have to find it in their communities and in their heroes. So if black youth took pride and courage to face their own circumstances from the bold stance of leaders who, albeit radically, said loud that black America was now going to be a force to be reckoned with, the resultant call to action to the black community produced many more positive effects than negative ones. The fringe voice does speak what is in people’s hearts and by getting that anger and frustration out, it became part of the movement. That energy could be captured and used for good instead of evil. And the end result was a movement that was energized for change and to make life better for all of black America. And that was what everybody wanted.

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A Troubled Time

From 1955 to 1965 there was a war right in the middle of America. No, it wasn’t a war like World War II or the Revolutionary War. It was a war for the heart and soul of this country to determine once and for all if America was really going to be a land of equal opportunity for all. It is a war that eventually took on the name of “The Civil Rights Movement.”

We must make no mistake, this was not just a shouting match. Some of the events that we even remember today became quite brutal and deadly. Those who fought in this war on both sides were deadly serious about the causes they represented and willing to fight and even die to see their cause succeed. The war waged for years and steady progress was made but not without tremendous sacrifice by the leaders of the movement who were committed to a giving a new meaning to the phrase “set my people free.”

In all of black history, there may be no more significant a time since the Civil War when the rights of African Americans were so deeply fought and won. The tensions in the country had been building. When the Supreme Court mandated desegregation in the schools in the historic case Brown versus the Board of Education, the stage was set. But it was on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white man that the movement finally took shape and became a titanic struggle for the rights of African Americans in America. That first battle brought to the front line one of the most important figures to fight for Civil Rights of that era, the Reverend Martin Luther King.

This tremendous struggle for freedom was never easy and was often marked with violence. Over the next ten years some of the most important milestone in black history took place including…

* 1957 – President Eisenhower had to send federal troops to Arkansas to secure admission to Central High School by nine black students.

* 1960 – The sit-in at Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina set the stage for nonviolent protest that was used with great success for the rest of the struggle. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience became a staple of the civil rights movement because of the influence of Martin Luther King.

* 1963 – The historic March on Washington in which over 200,000 people gathered to hear Dr. Kings famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

* 1964 – President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that was the most significant event of his presidency and one he believed deeply in, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

* 1965 – The assignation of Malcolm X and the Watts race rights.

* 1965 – President Johnson takes another bold step to accelerate the civil rights movement implementing Affirmative Action when he issues Executive Order 11246.

This short list is just a few of the highlights of this troubled time in which the rights of all citizens of American, black and white and of all colors were being redefined both on the streets, in the courts and in the different branches of government. In the years to come there would be great steps forward. One by one, every area of American life would see breakthroughs by African Americans in the areas of sports, entertainment, education and politics. There were many proud moments and there were moments of tremendous shame and heinous acts committed by both white and black people. But through all that struggle, the society continued to grow and adapt to the will of the people as has always been the tradition in American culture.

The struggle is far from over. Discrimination and hate speech continue to be a problem to this day. And while it is easy to reflect on those days of struggle with regret, we can also look at them with pride. We can be proud of the great leaders who demonstrated tremendous courage and wisdom to lead this nation to a better way of life. And we can be proud of America because it is here where such a struggle can result in equality and freedom for all citizens, not just a few.

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Affirmative Action

The history of the growth of equality for African Americans in America has been one of great accomplishments followed by many small gains and many set backs as well. The outlawing of slavery did not instantly make all blacks equal with whites in America. It took many subsequent legal actions as well as hundreds of social efforts, big and small, to slowly make the progress we have seen today. But even in this day and age, in a new century, there is an ongoing battle against racism. It seems we need leadership to guide society to true equality as much now as ever in our history.

The abolition of slavery only began the long hard struggle for African American culture to become a true part of what it means to be an American. That is because even though the legal definition of slavery had been thrown down, the attitudes and cultural systems in place to keep the races separate and to deny black people rights equal with whites had to be addressed one by one.

Slowly over the decades, we have seen big changes but many came at a great cost. From the legal granting of the right to vote to African Americans to the civil rights movement to school desegregation, each step forward came with resistance, great difficulty and significant sacrifice from leaders and ordinary citizens alike to make each step toward true equality a fact.

Of all the efforts to “level the playing field”, none has been more controversial than the Affirmative Action program. In its beginning, it was intended to be a supplement to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over time it had become clear that despite removal of laws that enforced segregation or discrimination, there seemed to be a natural segregation in the work place that was keeping African Americans from getting a fair chance at jobs because of the prejudices of an employer, even if that prejudice was not officially recognized in the company charter.

There were two significant executive orders that made affirmative action a reality. The first was Executive Order 10925 signed by President Kennedy on March 6, 1965 which was the first law to make mention of the phrase. This was followed by much more sweeping Civil Rights Act which was signed into law by President Johnson. Together these laws attempted to correct by legal means the disparity of opportunity that existed in the workplace for people of color by instituting a system of quotas that employers had to meet to satisfy federal affirmative action minority employment levels.

But as is often the case when the government attempts to impose right attitudes via legislation, these laws often created as many problems for minorities as they cured. Nevertheless as the application of the quota systems began to become widespread, it did open many doors for African Americans that would not have opened due to racial prejudice and silent segregation that was keeping the African American community from reaching its economic potential.

In truth, nobody really liked this kind of imposed fairness system. For whites, they felt the sting of an artificial system of judgment that was sometimes called “reverse discrimination”. While there was some justice that the white community got a taste for what it felt like to loose out on opportunity due to the color of your skin, it did not help the country in our goal of growing together to become one “color blind” community.

Affirmative action was a mixed blessing for the African American community. While it did its job in the short term to opening doors that were closed due to racism, it is not the ideal solution. That is because it did not fulfill Dr. King’s vision of a world where a man is judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. We can hope that we will grow to that point as a culture and look back on affirmative action as an unfortunate but necessary provision to help us grow and mature as a truly integrated culture.

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