Equity & Diversity

Deaths of Pivotal Figures in Brown Mark Passing of Desegregation Era

By Anjetta McQueen — October 21, 1998 8 min read
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Forty-eight years ago, Homer Minus was one of nine black Delaware State College students who followed a young lawyer named Louis L. Redding down the path of racial equality.

“We knew that he was the person who could make things OK for us,” said Dr. Minus, now a Felton, Del., dentist, who joined the successful 1950 Parker v. University of Delaware suit because the medical-technology classes he needed were at the all-white university. “He not only spoke to us as a teacher in the world of civil rights, he spoke to us as a friend.”

Mr. Redding, the driving force behind the subsequent battle to desegregate Delaware’s public schools, died late last month at age 96. Then last week, mourners in Richmond, Va., buried retired Chief Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Judge Robinson, 82, was another of the lawyers who transformed the racial landscape of elementary and secondary education in the United States.

Along with the death last month of Eliza Briggs, a parent who challenged segregated schools in South Carolina, those deaths mark the passing--over just four weeks--of leading players in three of the lawsuits that made up Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In its historic ruling in those consolidated cases, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954.

“One by one, we’re losing the pioneers of the most important and significant legal campaign in American history,” Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor of education and social policy and the director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, said last week. “When they started out this campaign, it looked absolutely impossible to accomplish what they did.”

“They had to educate the country, work without resources, do things that made them ostracized in their profession,” he said of the desegregation lawyers. “These are real revolutionaries.”

And though less well-known, several other figures in America’s desegregation struggle died this year: a parent-plaintiff from California; a journalist; a U.S. Department of Education investigator; and an Urban League leader.

Since the 1993 death of Thurgood Marshall, the retired Supreme Court justice who shepherded the Brown case as the top lawyer for the naacp, desegregation advocates have been struck by the closing of an era and the question of how to sustain what they see as a vital inheritance.

“We are seeing our legal fathers pass, and with them their legacy,” said John C. Brittain, a University of Connecticut law professor and the lead counsel in Sheff v. O’Neill, an 8-year-old state case charging that the mostly minority students in Hartford, Conn., are not getting an equitable education compared with their peers in the wealthier suburbs. “It feels like a child whose parents are dying, and now must assume their roles in the struggle.”

‘Particular Kind of Courage’

Brown v. Board of Education involved five cases that were argued in tandem before the Supreme Court. (One of them--Bolling v. Sharpe--was decided separately because it dealt with the District of Columbia schools.)

Mrs. Briggs and her husband were the lead plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott, out of Clarendon County, S.C. Judge Robinson was the lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., and Mr. Redding argued Gebhart v. Belton, the Delaware school desegregation case.

Theodore M. Shaw, the associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which helped lawyers such as Mr. Robinson and Mr. Redding in their home battles, called their deaths a time for reflection.

Brown stands as a legal monument, but desegregation itself is by and large being abandoned by the courts, by policymakers, and by many Americans of all races,” Mr. Shaw said.

Supreme Court decisions of the 1990s have released major cities such as Cleveland and Nashville, Tenn., from decades-old court orders. But the lawyers, plaintiffs, and activists who worked on the handful of school suits in the 1950s are remembered for their success in changing the law, inspiring black communities to challenge their place in society, and prompting a nation to question its consciousness.

Mr. Robinson was a part-time law professor and a lawyer in Richmond when Barbara Johns, a high school junior, called his office complaining that nothing at her legally segregated black school--buses, textbooks, classrooms--was as good as what the white schools had. He and his partner, Oliver Hill, filed suit on behalf of 450 students at Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Va., persuading parents that this case needed to go before the Supreme Court. Ms. Johns died in 1991.

Faustine C. Jones-Wilson, the editor-in-chief emerita of the Howard University-based Journal of Negro Education in Washington, remembers what those cases meant to the black community: “As an older person, I went to legally segregated schools, and while we had excellent teachers, we were treated as second-class citizens in that the buildings were in disrepair and the materials and books were not as up-to-date.”

The desegregation movement was “our chance to realize the American dream,” she said last week.

Dr. Minus, the Delaware dentist, recalls a sympathetic, understanding lawyer in Mr. Redding, who became a lifelong mentor and role model for the African-American students. “When you’re young and unexperienced and see an older person, you feel their problems can’t be the same,” said Dr. Minus, 67. “We all looked up to him because we saw him as a person of power, but he never set himself apart. He had a way of making you feel he was with you.”

Others believe these lawyers changed the country as a whole.

“What they did lives on,” said Jack Greenberg, a former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who worked with Mr. Redding and Mr. Robinson in the 1950s. “It took a particular kind of courage to bring these cases in those days. Now, you have blacks and whites all over the country working on these cases,” said Mr. Greenberg, who teaches civil rights law at Columbia University.

Mr. Orfield added: ''You are not just putting a legal argument together. You must also be able to persuade a court, and the public to some extent, that the world really needs to be very different from how it is.”

Common, Courageous People

Lawyers were not the only ones to shape the success of the school desegregation movement. The roles of the plaintiffs are being recalled in the wake of recent deaths.

The history books focus on the Topeka, Kan., case filed on behalf of Linda Brown and other students as the hammer that broke legal segregation, but South Carolinians point to Briggs v. Elliott, filed in Charleston in 1949, as the catalyst. Eliza Briggs, a Summerton, S.C., domestic worker, and her farmer husband, Harry, were sending their five children to the same blacks-only school they had attended when they realized the white school had buses, new books, and a nicer building. The Briggses’ case eventually went to the Supreme Court as part of Brown.

In a precursor to the Brown cases, Felicitas Mendez, a farmer’s wife, sued the Westminster, Calif., school district in 1945, paving the way for Latino children to attend Orange County schools alongside Anglos. She died at age 82 in April.

Mr. Orfield of Harvard said he attended a memorial service in her honor last spring and met one of the Mendez daughters.

“I told her daughter about Linda Brown, and that they were the same sort of folks, not only for having their names on these cases, but for deeply understanding their role in society,” he said.

Racism is much more subtle now, and thus, far fewer parents and children are willing to continue fighting for school equality and integration, maintains Mr. Brittain, who cites his Connecticut case and recent filings in Rochester, N.Y., and St. Paul, Minn.

“The Briggses of the world had to have tremendous courage. They were vulnerable to economic, social, and even physical retaliation. But they were certainly fed up, so they decided to stand up,” Mr. Brittain said.

Mr. Orfield believes that younger people trying to understand desegregation’s past and future can relate better to the parents and children who took such stands. “The people who led marches or refused to sit on the back of buses, their actions are much easier to understand than court decisions, constitutional debate, or researching information,” he said. “One of the reasons young black and Latino students are pessimistic is because they don’t know how much people really accomplished, and they don’t realize their generation has a similar kind of mission.”

Mr. Greenberg knows his colleagues were “sick to their hearts” watching what integration advocates see as the dismantling of Brown in the past few years. The Supreme Court’s rulings in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell in 1991 and in Freeman v. Pitts in 1992 made it easier for districts to win release from desegregation orders. Districts have complained of excessive costs and lack of control over housing patterns that create racial imbalance.

“School desegregation is dead, and these legal legends are dying with that dream,” Mr. Brittain said.

But others suggest that the means of desegregation simply need to be rethought.

“It’s not really the schools, it’s housing,” said Alfred Lindseth, a lawyer with the Atlanta-based firm of Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, who has been designing desegregation plans for schools since 1978.

“Most of the intention nowadays in these cases is going toward improving educational opportunity--special programs, smaller classes, teacher training,” he said. “You rarely see a district advocating forced busing.”

Whatever the methods, work still needs to be done, Mr. Brittain said.

“We need to train a new cadre of lawyers to continue,” he argued, “because racial segregation and inequality for black and brown schoolchildren is just as great today as it was in the 1950s.”


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