Federal

Brown Panel Draws Mixed Reviews

By Catherine Gewertz — May 05, 2004 6 min read
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Brown at 50

A year and a half ago, a federal commission began work to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Now, as the May 17 date approaches, assessments of its accomplishments range from glowing to disappointing.

The Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission is drawing both praise and criticism from nationally prominent figures in education, civil rights, and government—including its own commissioners.

Some credit the panel with raising public awareness of the cases from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia that were decided collectively in Brown, along with a companion case from the nation’s capital, and with sparking dialogue about racial disparities that persist in public schools. Others complain that it has had little impact.

The assessments come as the commission prepares to take part in one of the higher- profile events designed to commemorate the ruling—the formal dedication on May 17 of a national historic site in Topeka, Kan. The site was once a segregated school for black students. (“Topeka Museum Captures Brown Legacy,” April 7, 2004.)

“They’ve done great work,” said U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, one of three Kansas Republicans who spearheaded the federal legislation that created the panel. “You’re seeing a lot more interest, and a lot more understanding of the Brown case.”

But William L. Taylor, a nationally known civil rights lawyer who has worked on school desegregation cases, said he has heard little talk about the commission or its work. His comments echoed those of other prominent scholars, activists, and policymakers who said they knew little of the panel’s activities.

“I would think that one of the functions is to have a public presence to talk about the significance of Brown,” Mr. Taylor said. “But it’s not very visible.”

Panel’s Mission

Congress established a 22-member commission, according to the statute, to “encourage, plan, develop, and coordinate observances of” the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision through “public education activities and initiatives” such as lectures, writing contests, and public-awareness campaigns. The panel was to work jointly with the U.S. Department of Education and the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research, a nonprofit organization based in Topeka.

President Bush, in consultation with Congress, appointed half the members, drawing from the regions that produced the Brown cases. The rest were chosen by the Education Department, the U.S. Department of Justice, the chief justice of the United States, the Brown Foundation, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the National Park Service, which oversees the Topeka historic site.

Since November 2002, when the panel began its work, it has held six public meetings in localities connected to the history of the Brown cases. At each site, panelists met with local leaders, toured historic areas, and hosted public discussions.

It has also hosted five forums around the country, some of which drew several hundred attendees. Topics included analyses of Brown from varying perspectives, such as its implications for the nation’s growing Latino population, and the roles female activists and religious communities played in the case.

The panel also issued monthly e-mail newsletters announcing its own and other Brown commemorative events. In conjunction with National History Day, a University of Maryland-based project that runs a national historical-research competition each year, the panel sponsored an essay contest for students in grades 6-12 about the significance of Brown that drew more than 3,600 entries. Three winners are to be announced May 17.

Commissioner Cheryl Brown Henderson, who heads the Brown Foundation and whose father, Oliver L. Brown, was the lead plaintiff in the Topeka case, said she worked with the Kansas congressional delegation to pass the law creating the commission because she believed there should be a federal presence in the Brown anniversary.

Ms. Henderson said she was satisfied that goal was met and believes that the commission “was able to get people thinking.”

Brian W. Jones, the Education Department’s general counsel and a co-chairman of the panel, said the commission did a great job making the public aware of the compelling personal stories that led to the litigation, and presenting the “larger issues” that arose from it.

‘A Little Frustrated’

But some commissioners and observers are frustrated that the panel hasn’t done more.

Joseph A. De Laine Jr., a commissioner whose father was a leader in the South Carolina school-desegregation movement, said he was glad the panel sparked some increased recognition of the cases. But he wishes it could have reached more people, especially in urban areas with racially diverse populations. “So I’m a little frustrated,” he said.

The law authorized $250,000 for the panel, but only $200,000 was appropriated, and not until October 2003, nearly a year after the panel began its work. Its annual reports show that it used about $120,000 of Education Department funds and received more than $67,000 worth of services and supplies from business and education groups.

A small budget and a commemorative mission meant that the panel was “crippled from the start” in making an impact on the issues raised by Brown, said Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard University law professor who advised President Clinton on affirmative action. To Mr. Edley, the panel’s origins reflect a regrettable message from the Bush administration.

“The very least that any sitting president could have done for such a momentous historical event was to sponsor some commemorative exercise,” he said. “But I think an inspired, deep commitment to realizing the aspirations of Brown would have pointed to a much more ambitious effort.”

Commissioner John H. Jackson, the national education director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoplewhich is hosting Brown events of its own—said he had hoped the commission would shape its public programs to provide more of a strategy to tackle racial disparities in schools. He learned only after being named to the panel how narrowly the law defined the group’s mission, he said.

“When you develop a commission and constrain it where it doesn’t have a substantive voice,” he said, “it would raise questions as to whether or not the administration is just developing the commission to window-dress Brown’s 50th anniversary.”

Many people argued that it wasn’t the commission’s role to have an impact on policy.

Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said such commissions rarely draw wide public notice.

Ralph F. Boyd Jr., a former assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights who co-chaired the commission before leaving his Justice Department job last year, backed the commission’s work as “meaningful and substantive.”

“People make [critical] comments because they have their own agenda, and if the commission doesn’t do what their agenda is, they view it as nonsubstantive,” he said.

Commissioner Deborah Dandridge, who is an archivist for the African-American collection at the University of Kansas libraries, said that “making policy or suggestions was not our focus.

“Our mission was simply to highlight the case and inform people of its historical significance,” she said. “And I think it turned out to be a job well done.”

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