The Lessons of Brown v. Board in 2021
This year marks the 67th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision — an event that is about much more than history.
For many students of color, educational opportunities are still separate and unequal. We cannot reach true equity with the scattershot solutions of decades past. We must pursue systemic actions. And more importantly, we must work together.
When Oliver Brown tried to enroll his daughter Linda at Topeka’s all-white Sumner School in 1951, he was met with a prompt no. “I’m sorry, this is the way it is in Topeka,” said the principal as eight-year-old Linda listened through the door, “that’s the policy of the school board and I can’t do anything about it.”
This closed door became a pivotal moment in education history as, soon, Mr. Brown and twelve other Black families took their grievances with local policies that kept their children’s opportunities limited to inadequate, segregated schools to court.
Their efforts brought national attention and resolution to the charge for integrated schools, but they were not the first to take action. In fact, eight-year-old Mamie Tape and her parents challenged a California policy in 1885 that relegated Chinese students to separate schools. Then in 1943, Sylvia Mendez was at the center of a case that convinced the California Supreme Court to strike down segregated “Mexican schools”. Now in 2021, we recognize the national significance of Brown, but we have not yet reached the full promise of our broader movement for equity.
As new threats and opportunities emerge, look to your own schools, neighborhoods, and other places where you gather. What faces do you see? How is power held and wielded? Ask yourself, “What can the legacy of Brown in my community and the events of the past year tell me about the work I still need to do?”
what we can do together
Despite the many challenges ahead, there is a wealth of brilliance in our sector to illuminate the path forward. In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of cross-racial and inter-generational movements for equity in schools around issues of LGBTIQA+ inclusion, liberatory pedagogy, early childhood investments, rigorous and engaging curricula, trauma-informed practice, and teacher diversity. We continue to reflect on these lessons:
- Brown disrupted an amazing history of Black-led community schools and led to the loss of employment for many gifted Black educators. This lives on in our current need to diversify the educator workforce.
- Schools today are still highly segregated. Black children are five times as likely as white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity. We need to invest in multi-racial and cross-sector efforts, like those led by Leading Educators alumnus Stefan Lallinger, to address the root causes in innovative ways.
- An excellent education is about more than academics. School should be a place for building understanding of self and of the social-political context of our country. As we recover from COVID and schools have additional resources, Ladson-Billings argues that there has never been a more pressing time for a hard reset.
- Teachers need strong support to make choices that foster excellence and equity. Our own Teaching for Equity resources begin with mindsets and beliefs because our classrooms must be fertile soil for cultivating the future we imagine. We are eager to learn about the practices emerging in your sphere to build our collective knowledge and understanding.
There is much work to be done, and we challenge you today to set intentions for how you will show up. Let us know what steps you are taking and how we can help.