Equity & Diversity

Brown Panel Seeks to Stir Passion for History, Civil Rights

By Mark Walsh — November 20, 2002 3 min read
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A federal commission formed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education hopes to use the occasion to stir passion about history and civil rights among a generation of Americans too young to remember officially segregated schools.

“Young people really do not know what the country was like before Brown,” Roger Wilkins, a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a commission member, said during the panel’s inaugural meeting here last week. “This is a moment we really must seize and squeeze the greatest educational advantage out of.”

The 22-member commission was created by Congress to coordinate commemorative activities around the golden anniversary of the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court ruling striking down so-called “separate but equal” schools.

The initiating statute calls on the panel to work closely with the Department of Education and the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research in Topeka, Kan., to coordinate activities surrounding the event.

“The anniversary is an opportunity to put race relations back on the national agenda,” said Cheryl Brown Henderson, the foundation’s president and a daughter of Oliver Brown, the Topeka father who was the named plaintiff in the historic case.

The commission has representatives from various federal agencies as well as from the five jurisdictions involved in the cases in the Supreme Court’s deliberations in Brown—Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. (The district’s case resulted in a separate opinion, Bolling v. Sharpe.)

The law specified that Massachusetts be represented because it was home to the first legal challenge to segregated schools. (The state’s highest court upheld segregation in an 1849 decision known as Roberts v. City of Boston.)

Joseph A. DeLaine, whose father helped bring the challenge to segregated schools in South Carolina in a case known as Briggs v. Elliott, said his family had to move out of the state after the Brown decision because of violent threats.

“I stay in contact with about 400 descendants of those folks involved in the Briggs case,” Mr. DeLaine, a commission member, said at the meeting.

The law calls for the commission to sponsor public lectures and student writing contests about Brown, among other activities. Congress authorized $250,000 over two years, but the panel may accept corporate and philanthropic contributions as well.

The commission, however, cannot make policy recommendations because the statute does not allow it, said Dan Sutherland, the panel’s executive director.

Cautionary Note

Theodore Shaw, the associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, warned fellow commission members against “hollow” celebrations of the Brown decision that do not take into account the current state of race relations.

“As a nation, I think we honor Brown more in principle than in practice these days,” he said.

At the Nov. 13 meeting, the commission heard from several organizations that already have a head start on planning commemorative activities. Howard University Law School, which hosted the inaugural commission meeting and helped incubate the legal arguments against segregation in the 1950s, is planning symposiums and courses about Brown.

The Smithsonian Institution is hard at work on a Brown exhibit, which is scheduled to open May 17, 2004, at the National Museum of American History here.

And the National Park Service is converting one of the four one-time black schools in Topeka into a national historic site. The $11 million project was authorized by Congress in 1992 and will include exhibits and interpretive experiences, said Steven Adams, the site director. It is also scheduled to open on the anniversary date.

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Brown Panel Seeks to Stir Passion for History, Civil Rights

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