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Marking the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education

click to enlarge The Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, president of the Colorado Springs chapter of the NAACP. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • The Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, president of the Colorado Springs chapter of the NAACP.

JOY is based upon choice where happiness is based on chance."

These are the words spoken one recent sunny spring Sunday morning, as the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, senior pastor of the Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, roused his mostly African-American congregation with a voice loaded with confidence, passion, commitment ... exultant joy.

This is a year to celebrate and rejoice, a year for joy. Fifty years ago on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that, in the words of the Court, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The landmark decision ended segregation in public schooling and led to the dismantling of Jim Crow laws that held African-Americans as second-class citizens.

"Joy comes from getting the facts right. Joy comes from having hope in the future," said Reynolds, 42, who also currently serves as the president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

His voice filled the small church.

"Praise the Lord," a voice called out.

"Tell it like it is, preacher," called another.

Heads nodded, frowns deepened and smiles broadened.

Extending his arms as if to embrace his audience Reynolds reminded them, "We have come so far, but there is still much work to be done."

Back to the '50s

The "work" that the Rev. Reynolds refers to is the struggle to undo the injustices suffered by African-Americans for more than three centuries and to ensure that the principles of integration formulated in the court decision are not diminished.

The story of Brown stretches back to the early 1950s, to five lawsuits in five states.

In Washington D.C., 11 black children attempted to enroll at a new high school and were refused. In Delaware, black students rode buses for over an hour to study in overcrowded schools. In South Carolina, school officials refused to supply buses for black children, forcing them to walk up to eight miles to school. In Virginia, black children were studying in dilapidated buildings that had no plumbing. And in Topeka, Kansas, Linda Brown and 20 other children were refused admission to all-white schools.

The NAACP coordinated all five lawsuits as they made their way through the legal system and eventually appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1952, the suits were grouped together on the same court docket and identified as Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

In 1954, the Court issued a unanimous ruling that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" -- which essentially validated segregation as long as the facilities provided were an equal standard -- was unconstitutional.

Separate educational facilities were deemed inherently unequal and it was determined that they deprived black children of equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The impact of the Brown decision was dramatic: It laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement and the realization of an integrated America.

City in denial

It may seem surprising to many living in Colorado Springs that racial politics still exert an influence. Some believe that we are all equal and that it is time for everyone to put all that behind us and move on. For others the issues are as poignant as ever.

Just this March, the Colorado Senate defeated a proposal to eliminate affirmative action policies. The bill had been sponsored by Republican Ed Jones, currently the only black member of the Colorado Senate, who represents Colorado Springs.

For the most part, however, Colorado -- at least compared to many Southern states -- does not have a legacy of dramatic clashes over civil rights. That is not to say that racism and segregation did not and to a certain extent still exist here, according to numerous local people of color.

click to enlarge African American student Linda Brown (front, C) sitting in her segregated classroom at the Monroe School before the Supreme Court ruled on her behalf resulting in decision to make school segregation illegal.
  • African American student Linda Brown (front, C) sitting in her segregated classroom at the Monroe School before the Supreme Court ruled on her behalf resulting in decision to make school segregation illegal.

"Colorado Springs has long been a city in denial. I think racism is real, subtle and covert," said Sharon Tunson, a second-generation Springs resident. However, she acknowledges that Colorado Springs was relatively safe and that the schools have always been desegregated.

"It was always interesting growing up in Colorado Springs as a black person," said Tunson, now 57. "In comparison to many places it was a haven."

Tunson has experienced the education system from both sides. She completed her schooling here and recently retired after working 31 years as an educator in District 11. Her memories of her school days are positive and she rarely confronted racism as a child.

"Of course I noticed that I was the only African-American, but I was never treated any differently," she said.

Tunson was one of a generation of black students who broke racial barriers in the post-Brown era. At North Junior High she was the first black Head Girl. In 1963, she became the first black cheerleader and in 1965 the first black sweetheart queen at Palmer High School.

"My parents had things they couldn't do. I did pretty much what I wanted," she said.

That changed on finishing high school when she went to study at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

"Greeley was the first time I came up against racism as described by my parents. They had told me about the '30s and '40s. At that time, the movies and restaurants were segregated. My father recounted seeing cross burnings," she said.

In the late 1960s, Greeley was a small rural town and the environment Tunson encountered was overtly racist.

"In 1968 there was a lot going on. When we tried to rent an apartment, we'd call ahead and arrange an appointment. On arrival, when they saw who we were, the apartment was 'gone''" she said.

"Just after Martin Luther King was assassinated we had notes nailed to our doors that said 'You're next nigger.' It was very frightening."

Although Colorado Springs has a history of desegregated public schooling, African-Americans who attended school here before the 1960s faced more obvious restrictions and prejudices.

"All right, all you darkies get over there on that side of the room," was a typical form of address 87-year old Lu Lu Pollard remembers from the 1920s and 1930s. "We were not allowed to go to certain school functions, school picnics," she recounted in an oral history recording made by the Negro Historical Association in 1993.

In a 2003 panel discussion, Sam Hunter and Franklin Macon recalled that although classes were integrated in the 1930s, they were unable to play contact sports like basketball and football.

Outside of school was in many ways worse. "All of Colorado Springs was prejudiced. This was a horrible time for black people," said Pollard.

Most restaurants and hotels would not serve blacks; cinemas had segregated seating and the local swimming pool would only allow "colored" people to swim on Wednesdays, the day that the water was changed.

It was not until the 1950s that these discriminatory practices were dismantled.

Some men created equal

Of course, discrimination against people of color dated far before the mid-20th century and has its roots in slavery. American slavery dates back to 1619, when 20 Africans were sold into bondage in Jamestown, Virginia. In 1776, American colonists signed the American Constitution that contained the phrase that "all men are created equal." However, "all men" did not include slaves who were considered property rather than people.

In 1857, the Supreme Court confirmed that exclusion in the famous Dred Scott case when they ruled that blacks were not recognized as United States citizens. As a result, the nation moved closer to a bloody civil war that lasted four years. The defeat of the South ultimately resulted in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution that abolished slavery, provided for all people equal protection of the law and established the right to vote irrespective of "race, color or previous condition of servitude."

Dred Scott was negated, but the gains were short-lived.

As the federal troops withdrew from the South, state legislatures passed laws designed to frustrate the new amendments. Many of these laws began winding their way through the courts. One successful effort, called Plessy vs. Ferguson, gave America the phrase "separate but equal," and led to legalized discrimination. These Jim Crow laws restricted everything from using public transportation to drinking from the same water fountains as whites. African-Americans were denied access to the same stores, restaurants, housing and education as whites.

Luck and perseverance

click to enlarge Retired educator and Colorado Springs native Sharon Tunson believes that racism here is covert. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Retired educator and Colorado Springs native Sharon Tunson believes that racism here is covert.

Ultimately, this environment resulted in what became the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court. At the time of the 1954 decision, 18 mainly Southern states required that schools be segregated. Four others had laws that permitted segregated schools.

The NAACP's special counsel Charles Hamilton Houston, along with a team of lawyers that included Thurgood Marshall, identified cases where black school facilities could easily be shown to be inferior to white schools, a clear indication that the conditions were "separate but unequal."

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous verdict that "in the field of education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place."

In other words, Jim Crow was dead.

A lot has been said about how the decision forced America to confront its institutionalized prejudices and live up to its professed belief in democracy, freedom and equality for all.

Randall L. Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, disagrees. During a recent speech at Colorado College, he argued that Brown had more to do with political practicality, world events and the relentless efforts of the plaintiffs, lawyers and, less visibly, the many "regular people who took a chance and helped make life better for most of us."

The decision was one thing, enforcing it was another. Suffice to say Brown was not popular in many states and the path to desegregation was blocked many times.

"Ten years after Brown fewer than 1 percent of blacks in the former confederate states went to desegregated schools," said Kennedy.

The problem with the 1954 decision is that it established that desegregation was unconstitutional, but there were no real remedies on how to effectively fix it.

Even so, the well-documented civil rights movement ensued, and over the past 50 years, much progress has been made.

A half-century later

A half-century after Brown, African-Americans still trail behind whites in most areas of American life.

In March 2004, the National Urban League released its State Of Black America report which found that the status of African-Americans measured in five key areas, economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement, was equivalent to 73 percent that of whites.

White students still graduate, go to college and get good jobs more often than blacks. The Urban League's report found that black students attain college degrees at 63 percent the rate of their white counterparts and that the unemployment rate among blacks is twice the rate of whites.

Integration was expected to bring not only equality in facilities, access to learning and opportunities for advancement, but also equality in achievement. Today society is legally desegregated, but covert forms of segregation, racism and other factors act as barriers to advancement.

During the 1970s and 1980s, achievement levels for African-Americans and other minority students improved. But since the 1990s, the achievement gap has widened.

Black students score lower, graduate less and drop out more often than their white counterparts.

In Colorado Springs' 10 area school districts, the trends are similar. The largest district, District 11, generally exceeds average state and national league achievement levels in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Test (ACT) across all ethnicities.

However, there is still a consistent gap between the achievement levels of white and minority students.

"When comparing child to child, we do not see a difference. There are other factors that influence the results," said Norm Ridder, Superintendent of D-11 when asked to explain the disparities.

"One of our biggest concerns is at the kindergarten level where we notice the biggest gap. It tends to be a problem of poverty rather than ethnicity. In a poor family, a child may be lucky to be exposed to a couple of books, whereas in a richer family, a child will be exposed to thousands of books," said Ridder.

Some, however, question whether the school system is responsive to the needs of blacks and other minority children.

"I don't believe that the schools meet the needs of children of color," said Pam Shipp, 57, a former D-11 educator and co-founder of the Black Leadership Forum, a group of activists and community leaders.

click to enlarge Pam Shipp is a co-founder of the Colorado Springs Black Leadership Forum. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Pam Shipp is a co-founder of the Colorado Springs Black Leadership Forum.

"Too many kids start high school thinking that they want to be a rap star. Where do we in the education system help them establish realistic goals?"

Sharon Tunson agrees: "Our role models were doctors, ministers, lawyers, our parents. Their world is unrealistic. They're all basketball players, football players, singers, models. The kids just want the bling bling, but not to put in the hard work."

Countering the failings

Mary Thurman, deputy superintendent for D-11, acknowledges the disparity between white and minority student achievements and said the district is currently setting up a program that she hopes will result in improvements. The plan, she said, involves better empowering school officials to provide increased autonomy and accountability at the school level.

But some people, including land developer and local voucher proponent Steve Schuck, don't buy it. Long frustrated by his perception that public schools are failing minority students, Schuck has, for the past several years, maneuvered via a number of channels to incorporate a voucher system similar to the Milwaukee School District's program. Last year, the Colorado Legislature adopted a voucher program; however that proposal was struck down as unconstitutional; it is currently on appeal.

Last November, Schuck successfully helped propel a majority of four voucher advocates onto the D-11 School Board [to read more about the takeover, read the Independent's two part series, Command Performance, online at www.csindy.com]

Meanwhile, federal and state governments are also encouraging the development of supplementary education providers.

Businesses, private schools and charitable organizations develop education programs, are paid with public funds often from funds allocated to public schools and provide either an alternative to or supplement public education.

For example, locally the Urban League is forming a partnership with NetAXS Solutions, a private company, to be a supplemental education provider under the "No Child Left Behind" funding regime.

Deborah Wilson, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs branch says it is necessary for organizations like the Urban League who represent minorities to have a presence in the new market. "It is the only way that we will meet the needs and interests of minority students," she said.

"If a school is failing, it must supply a list of supplemental service providers for parents to choose from," said Samuel Harrell, CEO of NetAXS Solutions. "The school then feeds funds to the service provider based on the number of students that attend its programs."

The Urban League/ NetAXS partnership plans to open its first center for the 2004 fall semester.

"It will make us better," said Ridder, who is happy to compete with private education providers and is confident that privatization will not be a significantly greater threat than it is today.

Others do not share his view and worry that these initiatives will undermine public education.

"Public schools should not have to compete," Tunson said. "Everything should be equal with kids getting the same level wherever they study."

Another concern is that the private schools and other providers are not obligated to accept all students who apply. Tunson, and others, worry that children with special needs or who have discipline problems will not benefit from the new programs.

"Public schools have to take everybody and comply with the testing requirements," she said. "It will create an uneven playing field' with public schooling being unfairly burdened with a greater proportion of children in need while having to compete with other providers who can pick and choose students."

Gotta be better

Back inside the Emmanuel Baptist Church on one recent spring day, the Rev. Reynolds reminds the assembled members that there is cause for celebration, but not for complacency.

Reynolds echoes the sentiments expressed in 1978 by Supreme Court Justice Marshall, head of the NAACP legal team for Brown vs. the Board of Education who went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice: "There are people that tell us today, 'Take it easy, man. You've made it.' But again, I remind you of what [former NAACP special counsel] Charlie Houston said; 'You gotta be better, boy.' ... You can't stand still. You must move, and if you don't move, they will run over you. We must not give in."

"You cannot manufacture joy; joy comes from having hope in the future," says Reynolds.

No matter which direction public schooling moves, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision guarantees that black and other minority Americans will remain an integral part of society, legally entitled to share in the opportunities provided to all.

"I'm proud of that legacy," said Shipp. "However, we don't live up to it all the time. It is a benchmark to remember and it provides a guide."

Tunson agrees. "The opportunities are there, but the playing field is not level. My folks told me in the '50s and '60s: 'You gotta be able as a black person in America, a member of a minority, to realize that the wealth is controlled by a few. You gotta be better and more educated to make it level.' Brown gave us that chance."

  • Marking the 50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education

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