Q & A: The Legacy of Brown vs Board of Ed

Q & A: The Legacy of Brown vs Board of EdTwo alumni who are deeply engaged in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice reflect on the legacy of this historic legal decision.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. The court ruled that separate was not equal and segregated public schools nationwide had to enact and implement racial desegregation programs.


Although there has been tremendous positive change since the decision was handed down, no one could claim victory in the fight for social justice. That’s where Ted Shaw ’76 and Melissa Woods ’94 come in. Shaw is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Woods is an assistant counsel. Recently they answered questions for Wesleyan about Brown’s legacy.


Q: Many say that without Brown, there is no Civil Rights Act, no Voting Rights Act. Did Brown offer a large dose of courage in a society where so many racist beliefs were deeply entrenched?


TED SHAW: Brown changed the operating assumptions in America. Even though it didn’t get rid of segregation and discrimination, it broke the back of American apartheid and signaled the end of the “separate but equal” era. It was a spark for the entire Civil Rights movement.


Q: If you could wake up tomorrow and change the educational system in the United States, what would you do?


MELISSA WOODS: First, I would create a trust fund for the public education system that contains the same amount of money that this country spent on the war in Iraq, with the goals of more teachers who are better trained and better paid, smaller class size, and better programming (e.g., sports teams, music classes, theater). Second, I would remind the American public that education is not a fundamental right. It is recognized as such in many of our states. But nowhere is there an affirmative statement that you are entitled to it. LDF believes that we need a national dialogue about public education and how we support it and enshrine it as a fundamental right.


Q: How did Brown v. Board affect you personally?


SHAW: I was born six months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown. The Civil Rights movement was the whole background and context for my early years. I remember when my grandmother went to the March on Washington in August 1963. She wanted to take me, but my stepmother wouldn’t allow it. The handbill my grandmother brought back from the March is in my office now. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 had a profound impact on the country and on me personally. After that, I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.


Q: Brown opened doors, but many are now saying that these doors are being closed by what is often termed “voluntary segregation”?specifically, families of color refusing or avoiding having their children bused out of neighborhood schools. How do we guarantee the level of access to every child that Brown promised?


SHAW: LDF was intimately involved in the University of Michigan litigation that led the Supreme Court to determine that diversity is of compelling state interest in colleges and universities. We believe the same theory should apply at the primary and secondary school level. School districts, as well as colleges and universities, should foster meaningful interaction amongst students of varying backgrounds through integrated classrooms and learning environments as components of a quality education.


Q: The initial experiment with vouchers done by the Milwaukee school system showed some promising academic outcomes for students from poor and working-class families. And yet, vouchers have drawn a lot of criticism.


SHAW: Voucher programs offer little promise, or even hope, of achieving equal educational opportunity for the millions of poor children of color in our nation’s urban school districts. The way the programs currently exist, only a tiny fraction of public school students can be selected to receive vouchers or scholarships. Further, these programs typically offer payments that do not cover the full cost of tuition, forcing parents to make up the balance, thus dramatically constricting the number of impoverished public school students able to benefit from a voucher. Voucher programs that would reduce funding to already struggling public schools may worsen the prospects of those students remaining in public systems.


Q: The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) seems to address economic disparity in theory, but not yet fully in practice. Where does it fall short? Should it be scrapped or is there value in this measure?


SHAW: We should strive to create and support legislation that is going to promote educational opportunity for all children. While the federal NCLB law does fall short of that goal, we must recognize that it is a complex piece of legislation with both positive and negative components. Positively, NCLB fosters the premise that all children learn and the requirement that schools set high expectations for all students. Negatively, NCLB relies on a rigid regime of high-stakes testing which 1) narrows curriculum, 2) is used to label and punish under-resourced schools affected by poverty and struggling against extraordinary odds, and 3) encourages the misuse and abuse of standardized tests. NCLB has not been adequately funded, and this imposes unrealistic expectations and demands on overburdened school districts and their students.


Q: During an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown, Bill Cosby had some biting comments, including saying that some parents are more willing to spend $500 on a pair of sneakers than $200 on Hooked on Phonics. He also said black men in prisons are not political prisoners, they are felons. Many in the crowd bristled at the comments, and Cosby has repeated them several times since that appearance. Yet NAACP President Kweisi Mfume was quoted saying, “Much of what he said, I’ve been saying in my speeches.” Why did Cosby’s words cause such an outcry?


SHAW: Predictably, conservatives are applauding Bill Cosby for saying that the problems of the black community stem primarily from personal failures and moral shortcomings. But just as we in the progressive African-American community cannot countenance the demonization of poor people, we must not cede the issue of personal responsibility to ideological conservatives. Dr. Cosby is right to urge parents to parent, children to read and to take advantage of every available educational opportunity, and all people to repudiate crime and violence. Even if all that is done, it will not eliminate poverty. In poor black communities, too many public schools fail students. Opportunities for meaningful employment with living wages are insufficient. Decent housing for poor people does not meet demand. Adequate health care is lacking. Concentrated poverty in black communities is accompanied by massive disinvestment in human and financial capital. Racial discrimination runs rampant throughout our criminal justice system and racial segregation, not mandated but yet tolerated by law, remains a fact of life in our nation. Personal responsibility is a notion that I embrace, but it must be understood in the context of systemic problems facing the African-American community that are not self-inflicted.


Q: Reparations for slavery have been an ongoing discussion during the last few years. Where do you come down on this issue?


WOODS: There is no question that this country has benefited from hundreds of years of hard labor performed by enslaved African Americans. There is also no question that this country has created and condoned a system of compensation for generalized loss, such as that experienced by the descendants. The only real question is whether reparations can be distributed in a meaningful manner. The first step to achieving that goal should be a public apology from the United States government.


Q: What are other hot issues you are involved with now at LDF?


SHAW: We continue to fight against prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate legal counsel for indigent defendants, and sentencing and incarceration disparities; to provide voting rights and political empowerment for people of color and the poor; to guarantee that employment opportunities are equally available to all Americans; and to ensure that the economic gains achieved by the African-American community are not stripped away.