The Bush administration announced the creation of a 21-member commission last week to oversee activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Striking a historic blow at racial segregation, the unanimous 1954 ruling found that laws separating elementary and secondary students by race violated black students’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
“The decision ... dramatically opened the doors of opportunity to countless numbers of Americans, including me,” said Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who at the time of the ruling was a 20-year-old college student at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
May 17, 2004, will mark a half-century since the high court under Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered its decision. The anniversary commission will work with the Department of Education and the Topeka, Kan.-based Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research to plan and coordinate public education activities and initiatives, according to an announcement from the department. The events are expected to include public lectures, writing contests, and public-awareness campaigns.
The commission is co-chaired by Gerald A. Reynolds, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, and Ralph F. Boyd Jr., the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Department of Justice. Members were selected by the Bush administration, in consultation with Congress, by Chief Justice William A. Rehnquist, by the Brown Foundation, and by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (“Commission Members,” this issue.)
The ruling known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka combined cases from four states: Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia. The same day, the court also invalidated school segregation in the District of Columbia in a companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe.
At that time, however, the justices did not order a specific remedy.
‘All Deliberate Speed’
It was not until one year later that the court issued a follow-up ruling on what school systems were required to do under the 1954 decision. In a seven-paragraph ruling referred to as Brown II, the court, again in unanimity, rejected a plea from the NAACP lawyers for a one-year desegregation deadline.
Instead, the court sent the cases back to lower courts with instructions to require that local school authorities “make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance” with the 1954 ruling. But the court said districts could do so “with all deliberate speed,” semantic wiggle room that allowed some states and school districts to delay integration of classrooms by more than a decade.
The Brown decision took its name from Oliver Brown, the lead Topeka plaintiff, who sued on behalf of his daughter Linda.
The commission will first meet at Howard University in Washington on Nov. 13.
Asked for more details on what’s in store, Susan M. Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said no firm decisions had been made.
“That’s something that the commission will be looking into,” she said, “how best to commemorate this decision, not just on that day, but in the time period leading up to the [50th anniversary], and afterwards.”