Education Opinion

Brown v. Board of Education and the Black History Month Syndrome

By Derrick Bell — February 22, 1984 8 min read
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February has become the time when we move through the series of racial-pride programs that are the now-predictable agenda of Black History Month. This year, I am also thinking ahead to the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Strangely, I am not looking forward to the event with enthusiasm.

Usually as I approach the fateful day, May 17, I feel a rising sense of pride about a court case that the skill of black lawyers and the courage of their black clients made possible. The pride is accompanied by a renewed determination to make real the Supreme Court’s promise to end racial segregation and discrimination in the public schools of this country. But now, my strong determination has been diluted by yet another year without much progress toward a goal that once seemed so close.

As I consider how many thousands of black children have and will complete what schooling they obtain without much improvement traceable to the Brown decision, my mind travels back to a time years before 1954. Then, the expectations of most working-class blacks were more limited, bordered as they were by church on Sunday and the proverbial good time on Saturday night.

There was, I recall, a hard-driving rhythm-and-blues song quite popular in black communities back in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s. The opening lines went, “Have you heard the news? There’s good rockin’ tonight. I’m goin’ to hold my baby tight as I can, tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty man. Pass on the word. There’s good rockin’ tonight.”

With a heavy beat capable of getting even poor dancers like me on the floor, the lyrics of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” promised a good time for all--pretty girls and plenty of food and libation.

Much older now, I see the carefree, rhythmic invitation to a good time as a less happy social comment, with implications far beyond the song’s Saturday night fish-fry image. The husky-voiced rhythm-and-blues singer was offering more than a sensual, satisfying good time. He suggested as well a brief reprieve from the hard life, the subservient existence most blacks experienced all week.

“Tonight,” he seemed to say, “we can do as we like"--implying, of course, that white folks would not interfere or try to control the event. Buoyed with that unspoken thought, he boasted that “tonight my girl will know I’m a mighty man.”

But we know that whatever the singer and those who listened to his song proved to their women and themselves on Saturday night would be disproved by the harsh, segregated reality of Monday morning. And, one thinks, even as they went about the happy business of proving themselves “mighty,” these men also knew how fragile the evidence was, and how soon it would have to be shelved.

In a far more formal but still remarkably similar fashion, Negro History Week, now grown to Black History Month, has served a similar function. It, too, provides a brief period in which black America can parade its best, dust off its heroes, try to encourage its youth, and pretend that the annual ritual alone can make a lasting imprint on racist practices and beliefs that are reinforced throughout the rest of the year.

The public schools of our nation, often with the best of intentions, have become the chief disseminators of Black History Month. Each year, out come the dog-eared pictures of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and that ever-reassuring figure of the brilliant but humble black scientist, George Washington Carver. We show films and play the recordings of the old Negro spirituals and the newer freedom songs. There are discussions, and every black in the community of any reputation at all is recruited to come to school and take part in the annual brotherhood program.

You will hear no condemnation of these programs from me. In many schools and districts where the black population is strong, or the white school officials sensitive, Black History Month can be impressive indeed. And even in districts where blacks represent a small and not very powerful minority, and the condescension of whites is thick enough to cut, these programs offer some reassurance to black children--and a small reminder to their white classmates--that black people, or some of them, are achievers worthy of respect.

But what I fear as I see civil-rights groups gearing up for the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education is the transformation of a once-powerful legal precedent into the equivalent of an annual holiday with no more implication for the equal educational opportunity it promised than the celebrations dutifully carried out each year for Black History Month.

On May 17, 1954, no black person who thrilled to the promise implicit in the decision would believe that Brown could come to such a state, that so much less would be accomplished than we thought possible at the time. All of us said at least a silent amen when Chief Justice Earl Warren read, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Surely, the unconscionably bad conditions that prevailed in segregated schools prior to 1954 are mostly gone. But just as surely, the goal of an equal educational opportunity remains beyond the reach of a whole generation of colored children who need it now more than ever.

Civil-rights lawyers and policymakers put their full faith and most of their resources into a literal interpretation of the Brown decision that emphasized its racial-integration aspects. The Court had warned that “to separate them [the black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

But as we have come to know, the evil of segregation was not that the schools were all-black, but that the state had decreed their segregated character and, with the same power, had allocated the best of school resources to whites and given whatever remained to blacks. The wrong was the allocation system, and the evil was the racism that motivated the segregated schools that carried it out.

The racial-balance strategy was valuable, even necessary, during the first decade or so after Brown, when Southern school officials used every possible technique that would give the impression they were in compliance with the law while, in fact, they were keeping the schools segregated or as close to their former Jim Crow state as possible. But as school systems in the larger districts became increasingly black, the racial-balance approach to compliance with Brown lost force. Most whites, whatever their thoughts about school desegregation, were not willing to have their children bused from mainly white neighborhoods and enrolled in mainly black schools.

And when the Supreme Court--chiefly in the 1974 case, Milliken v. Bradley--stymied civil-rights efforts to have courts order consolidation of mainly white suburban school districts with their almost all-black urban counterparts, the possibility of fulfilling Brown’s promise by a racial-integration strategy, if not the commitment of civil-rights groups to this strategy, simply ended.

Since about 1970, I have been one of the more or less unheard voices urging that the Brown decision be read to require a focus on equal educational opportunity. Such a reading would mean no coerced assignment of blacks by race, but would also mean that school systems must allocate resources without discrimination and, most important, must permit blacks to be involved in all policymaking so that they can play the important role in the schooling of their children so essential to effective education.

Where this has occurred--sometimes through court order (as in Dallas), much more frequently through the organized insistence of black parents and community groups representing their interests (as in Portland, Ore.)--the educational results have been encouraging and the integration progress has not suffered. For social integration, by definition, presumes the coming together of equals, an impossibility when a handful of poor black children are bused long miles from their homes to be enrolled in a white, middle-class school where they are subjected to colorblind policies that all too often manage to replicate the racial harm the Brown decision so deplored.

But in this post-civil-rights era, even my less threatening “effective education” approach to compliance with Brown receives little real support, except perhaps the distorted and hypocritical kind that now results from what passes for civil rights in the Reagan Administration. (Here I am referring to the whole emphasis on magnet schools as a means of completing the desegregation process.) This emphasis, I hasten to add, would not last for a moment if Mr. Reagan did not sense (correctly I fear) that it has the approval of large numbers of white voters.

So as we commemorate Black History Month this year, we should make a mental note not to pack the paraphernalia too far back in the closet, because much of it can serve double duty on May 17 when the Brown decision will be three decades old. Yes, there will be the speeches and discussions, and recordings of the freedom songs will be played. But if the sound is not turned too high, and we listen carefully, at least some of us will be able to hear far off, but seemingly becoming louder rather than fading, the falsely carefree rhythms of that more basic palliative of America’s black masses, “Good Rockin’ Tonight.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1984 edition of Education Week as Brown v. Board of Education and the Black History Month Syndrome


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