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Published May 15, 2024

Attacks on Public Education Threaten the Legacy of Brown

By Avis Weathersbee

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Segregation and other issues addressed by the court ruling have returned, educators say

When Ruby Bridges crossed the threshold of a Louisiana primary school in 1960—against a backdrop of rabid segregationists and profane jeers—she embodied the watershed Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The fact that it took six years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision for the desegregation order to be enacted in New Orleans was a testament to the South’s implacable and rancorous resistance to Black children attending school alongside white students. 

An opinion in the 1954 decision written by Chief Justice Warren Berger left these resonant words for posterity: “To separate [Black children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” 

Though the justices firmly rejected the previously standing “separate but equal” credo, states that had long been the cradle of “Jim Crow” defied both the letter and the spirit of the new law. This noncompliance played out as late as the early 1970s. Between 1954 and 1971, Alabama governor George Wallace physically blocked two Black students from registering for courses at the University of Alabama; Virginia’s legislature empowered its governor to close schools rather than desegregate them, which he did, and the Arkansas governor called out the National Guard to bar nine African American students from attending Little Rock High School. There were numerous other efforts to obstruct the law.

Brown turns 70 on May 17, but the vision of a robust and equitable public education system may yet be a dream deferred. Many education experts said the current wave of politicized offensives against a system already under stress pushes public schools toward a tipping point.

Cover Image: In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the young plaintiffs and their parents led the battle for school desegregation. Today, parents of Black and brown children are still fighting for quality education as states pass laws that ban teaching about race. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/Getty Images)


Race Forward advances racial justice in policies, institutions, and culture. Learn about HEAL Together, an initiative of Race Forward in partnership with the NYU Metro Center and Schott Foundation for Public Education. Together, we’re fighting for honest, equitable, and fully funded public schools.

“At [this Brown anniversary], it's probably even more important that we take note of the ongoing attacks on public education. Separate but equal was overturned, but we still find ourselves being stripped of our experiences through book bans, anti-affirmative action efforts, and the elimination of DEI offices,” said Denise Forte, CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that works to dismantle racial and economic barriers in the public education system. 

In the last few years, numerous states have introduced legislation limiting educators’ ability to teach students about the history of race in America. New Hampshire, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, Idaho, Utah, Texas, and Florida are among the states that have passed bills. These legislative shots to the bow distract from the important objective of educating the 81.9% of U.S. students who depend on a quality public school system. 

Crucial issues such as competition from charters, school vouchers, pandemic setbacks, teacher retention, classroom overcrowding, and parental concerns are getting lost in the shuffle as some state legislators and governors claim that critical race theory is being taught in public high schools. CRT, which asserts that racism is embedded in American institutions, is not taught in public schools. The concept dates back decades but has become a political volley in recent years, casting a pall over public education and teaching about the history of race in schools.

Kent McGuire, Program Director of Education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, wrote that anti-CRT bills try to limit students’ knowledge of American history. “Such measures typically describe classroom discussions of race and racism as divisive concepts to be avoided. But teaching a factual, unabridged version of the nation’s history is not inherently divisive. It is an opportunity to equip students with collaborative, critical thinking skills, which is the very purpose of public education.”

Education policy has shifted since Brown

McGuire, who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education from 1998 to 2001, said public education policy has shifted many times in the post-Brown years. Brown argued that “the problem of achievement and performance isn’t rooted in who the kids are, but in whether our education system is set up to support them in the right way,” McGuire said.

He added, “The data for years leading up to that case confirmed that if you were Black or brown, chances were that you went to a school that was under-resourced, not treated like schools that middle-class white kids go to, your facilities were substandard, class sizes were higher, and you might not have the full complement of fully certified and qualified teachers.”

In the next couple of decades, policy focused on addressing these disparities. That appeared to work despite resistance to desegregation. “We observed a steady and gradual reduction in the standardized gaps between white and Black students,” McGuire said. 

When the achievement gaps began to close, education policy shifted. McGuire said "a lack of international competitiveness" drove a shift from building the education system's capacity to holding schools accountable for improving test scores. For instance, in the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind required school districts to identify failing schools, but the federal policy didn't give the schools more flexibility to improve; instead, they were closed, he said. That same logic drove Race to the Top, a 2009 initiative, he said.

As the achievement gaps widened again, McGuire said the school conditions that led to the Brown case returned—from classroom overcrowding to distribution of quality teachers. “We have the same challenges in terms of resources for schools, and the communities they are in are now as segregated as they were immediately following or just preceding [Brown]. … The very problems that the policy moves following Brown were intended to address have reemerged,”  he said. 

Brown helped spark the Civil Rights movement

The Brown victory also was an important linchpin in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, paving the way for striking down other discriminatory laws. Florida historian and activist Rodney Hurst, 80, remembers those turbulent days and the importance of Brown in the campaign to end racial segregation. In 1960, as a 16-year-old high school graduate—he had skipped two grades—and NAACP Youth Council president, Hurst participated in a sit-in at a Jacksonville Woolworth’s that was part of a coordinated effort across multiple downtown eating establishments.

This act of passive resistance ended in violence and bloodshed when a white mob attacked the peaceful protesters with baseball bats and ax handles in a downtown park. The confrontation was dubbed “Ax Handle Saturday.” Hurst chronicled the brutal August 27 riot in his 2008 book “It Was Never About a Hotdog and a Coke!” “Even though it was my personal account it has become a history book because of the white press blackout. It’s archived today at the University of North Florida,” he said.

Approximately eight months after the sit-ins and “Ax Handle Saturday,” Jacksonville lunch counters were desegregated. 

A mural, which depicts the Ax Handle Saturday attack is displayed on the side of a building along A Philip Randolph Boulevard on Wednesday, September 20, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida.
A mural in Jacksonville, Florida, depicts ‘Ax Handle Saturday,’ when a white mob attacked Black teenagers protesting for civil rights on Aug. 27, 1960. (Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Hurst was inspired to join the Civil Rights struggle by his junior high school teacher, former Negro Leagues baseball player and local NAACP leader Rutledge Pearson. He said Pearson opened up a whole new world to him by teaching history that wasn’t in the standard classroom textbooks. Those tomes, Hurst said, only included George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington—“as if they were the only Blacks that made salient contributions to American history. [Pearson] taught us inclusive American history with the names of some folks I’d never heard of before like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley.” 

Both worked with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and on Brown v. Board of Education, which Marshall argued at the Supreme Court. Hurst met the two, who would become distinguished and barrier-breaking jurists. 

It’s important to talk about Black Americans’ contributions, he said.

“We very naively thought that because it was professional education whites would tell the truth about American history, and they would also include us in the chronological narrative about who did what in American history—tell the story of what we did and of some of the Blacks who made these great contributions that impact our lives daily. But they were not honest about American history,” Hurst said.

History books have long perpetuated a romanticized notion of American history, from William Wadsworth Longfellow’s ode to Paul Revere’s ride from Lexington to Concord to Benjamin Franklin's discovery of electricity, he said, adding, “None of that stuff happened.”

Fighting for inclusive education

The Education Trust recently turned its attention to book banning, which could have a chilling effect on education. In April, the organization held a virtual town hall titled “Can’t Be Erased” that included speakers who discussed how to counter this legislative course. 

“Can’t Be Erased” really draws attention to the many authors targeted by these bans by lifting them up and reminding folks of the power of lifting up all aspects of American history, because we know Black and Latino history is American history,” said CEO Forte. “And when you look at the number of books that have been targeted for censorship in 2022-2023, 40% of those books have characters of color and 21% have titles indicating issues of race.”

 Forte added, “Teachers want to be able to teach the highest standards. They want to make sure that the students in front of them are getting the most rigorous education that they can possibly get. And with these book bans and these restrictions on curriculum, that's not what they're allowed to do.”

State restrictions on teaching about the history of race trouble Black historians like Hurst and public education experts like McGuire. He asserts that communities should be empowered to better advocate for their children’s education, especially as schools are once again becoming segregated and children of color are at schools receiving the least resources.

“Part of what we’re doing is trying to give them data and information that they can use to advocate for these things we’ve been talking about—better teachers, more resources, diverse curriculum, etc.—and also getting better organized to push back against these bad actors who are mostly using race, identity, and gender as fear tactics to raise money,” McGuire said. 

Avis Weathersbee is an editor, writer, and news literacy advocate who has worked on print and digital platforms, including The Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony magazine, jetmag.com, and ebony.com.

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