Wednesday, February 24, 2016


One of the earliest events in a long string of events that became the Civil Rights Movement involved a group of black children who were being bused to a segregated elementary school in Topeka. It wasn't a bad school--in fact, it was designed and built by the same company that built the all-white elementary school in town that many of the children lived quite close to. In addition, there were more teachers with master's degrees in the black school than in the white school. Unlike other places, "separate but equal" seemed to apply in this case. After all, Kansas had sided with the Union in the Civil War and, as far as states go, was quite progressive on race issues. The junior high and high schools were already integrated.
Monroe Elementary, an all-black elementary school built in 1926

The beef, however, was that some of the students who attended Monroe School, the black students' school, lived much closer to the white students' school. Some of the parents wanted their kids to have the opportunity to attend in their own neighborhood. None of the parents, along with the NAACP, liked the idea of "separate" in the "separate but equal" ruling of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).  A group of thirteen parents, who represented their twenty children and were encouraged and supported by the NAACP, were the plaintiffs in this case. The eponymous plaintiff, Oliver Brown, was the father of a third-grader named Linda. Linda walked six blocks to her bus stop, and then she rode the bus a mile to Monroe School. An all white school, Sumner Elementary, was just seven blocks from her home. In the fall of 1951, the NAACP encouraged the parents to try to enroll their children at the neighborhood school. Of course they were denied and told to register at the segregated schools.

The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, noting that the standards established in Plessy v. Ferguson for "separate but equal" facilities had been met. Thurgood Marshall, who was the NAACP's chief counsel and who would later be appointed to the Supreme Court himself, argued the case before the Supreme Court in spring 1953, but the justices could not reach a decision and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953. (I had no idea that could be done.) Initially, it appeared the vote was sharply divided. Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that segregation was based wholly on the idea that black people were inferior to white people, a preposterous idea. His simple argument was effective. Eventually there were only two holdouts, but Warren and Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter decided that this was such a significant case that there needed to be a unanimous vote rather than a simple majority, even though legally a majority is the same as a unanimous vote. They continued to work on the holdouts, and eventually they got their consensus.
In part, their ruling read:
"[D]oes segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does. . . . 

"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. . . .

"We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs . . . are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."
NAACP lawyers George E. C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit
react to the Supreme Court's ruling.

The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was the first major step in the Civil Rights Movement. However, by no means was the struggle for equality over. The years that followed were tense and often deadly:

1955: 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and lynched in Mississippi for a casual comment to a white woman, and three months later Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. The Montgomery Bus Boycott continued for a full year before the city announced it would comply with a Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation on buses illegal. 

1957: Nine African-American students faced emotional and physical abuse when they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

1960: Lunch counter sit-ins began in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

1961: Freedom Rides resulted in mob beatings. 

1963: Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Medgar Evers was murdered that year, along with four little girls who died in the bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

1965: Malcolm X was assassinated.

1968: Martin Luther King was assassinated (the first Civil Rights event I actually remember), and President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Sadly, the list of of set-backs in the Civil Rights Movement continues on to this day, which is exactly why sites such as Monroe Elementary School are so important.

The ground floor of the school has been turned into a Civil Rights Museum. There is a powerful video presentation in the room on the other side of these brown doors:

Displays in the film room and in classrooms highlight different aspects of segregation. Two photos taken in 1949 show a class here at Monroe School and a class at the all-white Randolph School. They are very similar:

However, "separate but equal" schools for black students and white students in other schools in other cities were clearly NOT equal. The pictures below were taken in Clarendon, South Carolina, during the 1949-1950 school year. That year the school board spent $179 per white student and $43 per black student:

There are many thought-provoking displays:

I especially liked the upholstery on these arm chairs in the hallway:

A map below shows school segregation before Brown v. Board of  Education. The green states required segregation. The red states prohibited segregation. The gray states permitted segregation, and the white states (which includes both the state I grew up in and the state where I now live) had no specific segregation legislation, which many times meant there was de facto segregation:

We had a visceral response to the displays in the Monroe School that was very similar to what we felt in other Civil Rights Movement sites, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. and Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was an assault on our emotions and a challenge to our complacency. 

One of the arguments in Brown v. Board of Education was based on a test conducted by psychologists in the 1940s known as "the doll tests." White and African-American children were shown two baby dolls that were identical in every way except one was white with yellow hair and one was brown with black hair. They were asked to identify which doll they would rather play with, which one was nice and which one was bad, which one was a nicer color, and so on. A majority of the children preferred the white dolls, with the results being most pronounced among children who attended segregated schools. The researchers concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" had created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and had a negative impact on their self-esteem.

The second floor of the school focuses on what it was like to attend school at Monroe Elementary in the 1950s. For the most part, it was similar to my own elementary school milieu:

Well, I guess this is a little different from my school:

Finally, I learned a very interesting thing at the Monroe School: the song "Black and White," which was made popular by Three Dog Night in 1972, was actually written in 1954 in response to the Supreme Court Decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It was first recorded in 1956 by Pete Seeger:
Others also recorded the song, including Sammy Davis Jr., but it was Three Dog Night who took it to the top of the pop charts:
The Three Dog Night version in the video above omits the original first verse:
Their robes were black, their heads were white.
The schoolhouse doors were closed so tight.
Nine judges all set down their names
To end the years and years of shame.

In case you don't want to listen to the whole song, here are the lyrics (leaving out the repetitions):
The ink is black, the page is white,
Together we learn to read and write.
A child is black, a child is white,
The whole world looks upon the sight--
A beautiful sight.

And now a child can understand
That this is the law of all the land--
All the land.

The world is black, the world is white,
It turns by day and then by night.
A child is black, a child is white,
Together they grow to see the light--
To see the light.

And now, at last, we plainly see
We'll have a dance of liberty.

I happened on this wonderful book, Linda Brown, You Are Not Alone: The Brown v. Board of Education Decisionas I was writing this post. It is a collection of very personal essays, memoirs, and poems by ten of America's best children's authors. Some of the entries would be appropriate for children, and others are written for adults. Each of the authors experienced and wrote about the Supreme Court decision and the society that required the decision be made in his and her own way. My favorite entries are a heart-wrenching story by Newbery Award winner Jerry Spinelli about a black friend during his childhood and an equally sad memoir by Newbery Award winner Lois Lowry about a black foster child who came to stay with her family during the summer. Also included in the collection are pieces by Eloise Greenfield, Quincy Troupe, Katherine Paterson, Joyce Carol Thomas, Machael Cart, Ishmael Reed, Jean Craighead George, and Leona Nicholas Welch.

The material was collected and edited by Joyce Carol Thomas and published in 2003 to honor the 50th anniversary of Brown. Warm and wonderful full-page color illustrations by Curtis James accompany most of the entries:


  1. I really loved the Pete Seeger words to Black and White and of course I've always loved the Three Dog Night version. This time of our country's history brings out the emotion in me. Great post.

  2. Crazy that this took place in our lifetime. Interesting (and disturbing) history.

  3. Wow - I had forgotten all about this great song that I loved when I was younger. I loved the images in the video. Thanks for resurrecting some great memories and suggesting some books that I can pass on to grand children.