Volume 17 Number 6
How Far Has Equality Come Since Brown?
01 December 2004

Fifty years after a schoolgirl’s bid for equal education launched the Civil Rights struggle in the US, Hannibal B Johnson takes stock.
Words often beguile. Witness the United States’ Declaration of Independence and its assertion that ‘all men are created equal’. Its ‘all’ did not mean all; its ‘men’ did not mean ‘humanity’ or ‘people’ in the inclusive, universal sense. ‘All men’ meant all white men.

The US has since attempted, in fits and starts, to bring her behaviour into sync with her lofty ideals. Nowhere is the dissonance between principle and practice more pronounced than among those in the breach, particularly African-Americans.

In 2004, the US marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education. In this Oliver L Brown sued the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, over a white school’s refusal to admit his daughter, Linda. The decision in his favour crystallized the fight against racial segregation.

Brown was part of a legal strategy crafted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and lawyers affiliated to the Howard University Law School in Washington, DC. It involved appeals in public (state) school desegregation cases in Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Oliver L Brown’s case provided the marquee for all the others.

At the time, the infamous 1896 prosegregation ruling, Plessy v Ferguson, reigned supreme. Public schools, public transportation, theatres, restaurants, toilets and even drinking fountains bore either ‘White’ or ‘Coloured’ signs. Coloured facilities proved universally inferior.

On 17 May 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled Plessy, declaring segregation unconstitutional in public education. Chief Justice Earl Warren decreed: ‘We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’

Brown became a watershed case. Mountains of hope rested on its bold, principled conclusion. Waves of dreams crested around its frontal assault on American apartheid. Yet, with the passage of time, vast valleys of reality still loom between Brown’s soaring rhetorical peaks.

Brown’s sound exceeded its fury. Instantaneously repudiated by some and only grudgingly implemented by others, it precipitated a firestorm of consternation and controversy. The Supreme Court’s near paradoxical exhortation to act ‘with all deliberate speed’ unwittingly sanctioned a halting implementation of its edict. It also fomented deep-seated racial polarization.
Many whites, out of ignorance and fear, fled the cities for the suburbs and created ‘segregation academies’. Remnants of that backlash remain visible, most notably in the form of decaying, disproportionately minority inner cities and public school systems.

The steely idealism implicit in Brown no longer seems unalloyed. Few American schools lay claim to true racial integration. Even among desegregated schools, racial isolationism too often occurs. Integration remains illusory.

Some disillusioned African-Americans still harbour ambivalence about Brown. They complain that desegregation dismantled an important community institution, the black school, and replaced critical AfricanAmerican role models, black teachers and administrators.

Today, disparities in wealth and living patterns coalesce to create a kind of ‘neosegregation’. Schools with predominantly minority populations exhibit higher incidences of poverty, garner fewer governmental resources, and produce less favourable results in standardized, theoretically objective, tests.

Brown, though, stepped beyond the schoolyard gates. It trampled upon white supremacist notions deeply embedded in the American psyche and reasserted a core belief in the ideals embodied in the United States Constitution.

The legacy of Brown remains prodigious, if not wholly pristine. Brown marked a sea change in American society and altered the socio-political landscape for ever. It signalled the beginning of the end of legalized, formalistic inequality. It heralded a host of hard-fought advances for AfricanAmericans. Change came quickly after 1954, as a series of protests, conflicts and martyrs spurred advances in law (see box p6). Martin Luther King Jr stands as the quintessential icon of the civil rights era—a true patriot who challenged America to practise what she preached. King gave voice to those long muzzled by oppression. He and a chorus of disciples challenged the US on moral grounds. They commanded respect, captured the world stage, and changed a nation.

King’s meteoric rise to prominence ended in martyrdom, aged 39, on 4 April 1968, when he was gunned down as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His death stunned the world. Urban riots ensued as outraged and distraught African-Americans let loose longsuppressed frustrations and hostilities. Congress eventually honoured Dr King with a federal holiday in 1983. We celebrate the movement behind the man.

Brown and subsequent advances in civil rights spurred a still-evolving journey toward freedom, justice, and equality. In the apocryphal words of an AfricanAmerican elder: ‘Things ain’t like they oughta be. Things ain’t like they gonna be. But thank God things ain’t like they was!’

The 1921 Tulsa (Oklahoma) Race Riot is emblematic of the racial violence that once prevailed in America. The riot reduced the Greenwood District, known in the early 20th century as ‘Black Wall Street’ because of its black entrepreneurs, to ashes. Rioters killed more than 100 people, and left hundreds more injured and homeless. Property damage ran into the millions.

The authorities neither took responsibility for their role in fomenting the unrest nor for their failure to quell it. The perpetrators went unpunished. Local leadership blamed the black community for the ‘uprising’, and attempted to stymie the rebuilding effort.

In recent years, Tulsa has begun to address the legacy of the 1921 Riot. The school curriculum has been revised, race relations focus groups have been held and a college scholarship fund has been established. A private reparations fund has been created, a series of economic development initiatives have been launched and a consortium is addressing quality of life issues for elderly riot survivors. There are proposals for a museum, and a controversial lawsuit against the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma is seeking cash reparations on behalf of survivors. The Tulsa experience serves as a model for other communities seeking positive ways to deal with a negative racial past.

Despite progress in Tulsa and other communities, African-Americans as a group still face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to realizing the elusive American Dream. Job discrimination, bias in housing, and racial profiling remain all too common. The American criminal justice system ensnares African-American men in mindboggling numbers. Systemic, albeit often subtle, racism looms as the nightmarish reality for too many.

On average, black net worth lags dramatically behind that of whites, by a factor of 10 or more according to some sources. This alarming disparity reflects the cumulative effects of legal and illegal racism and discrimination.

Blacks generally have not been able to transfer wealth across generations. Slavery resulted in uncompensated labour for the slave and a windfall for the slave owner. ‘Jim Crow’ conditions—rigid segregation and blatant discrimination—devalued African-American labour. Barriers to hiring and job advancement artificially restricted black earning potential. One cannot transfer what one does not have.

In spite of these continuing challenges, African-American advancement is undeniable (see box right). Though whites still dominate America’s power elite, the rise of African-Americans on indices of social progress such as education and public office is striking. Today’s America boasts a growing black middle class and a smattering of super-rich black elites.

Few overt, institutional racial barriers remain. Most Americans now understand that a proper appreciation of diversity lies at the heart of our destiny. Increasingly, Americans acknowledge inequities, search for affirmative steps to eradicate them, and condemn blatant racism.

Closing the gap further will require owning up to our racialized past, then working creatively to rectify and reconcile. We will need to examine and address matters of prejudice and race-based privilege in our individual lives and to reach out to others in a sincere effort to learn, understand, and engage. We will need to develop projects which bring diverse elements of the community together to work towards some meaningful desired end. We must support organizations that work for the elimination of bias, bigotry, and racism; insist on school curricula that accurately reflect diverse contributions to our history and examine ways to correct past injustices.

The last of these recommendations is perhaps the most controversial. Many believe that the US government should provide reparations as an act of acknowledgement and contrition and a step toward restorative justice. The role the government played in perpetuating systemic racism adds to both the credibility and currency of the argument for reparations. Affirmative action, educational reform, monetary remuneration, and other targeted governmental initiatives, some argue, will help bridge the economic gulf now dividing blacks and whites.

Opponents raise several objections. They maintain that reparations would promote a sort of perpetual victimhood and reduce legitimate suffering to a crass commercial calculus. They warn of visiting the sins of the parents on the children, opening old wounds which may polarize race relations, and declaring open season for claims on the treasury by every marginalized subgroup. Should we not rather focus on devastating current issues like unemployment, crime, and AIDS, they ask?

Reparations are by no means unprecedented. For example, in 1988, the United States Congress awarded reparations to people of Japanese ancestry interned in the US during World War II.

Though contentious, the concept remains a worthy subject of dialogue and debate. At a minimum, the often painful history underlying the call for reparations will be uncovered and examined.

Beyond reparations for past grievances, other forward-looking ways to enhance race relations also merit our attention. Non-profit human relations groups like Hope in the Cities and The National Conference for Community and Justice already provide communities with resources for facilitating healing dialogue, mapping out strategies and sustaining long-term initiatives. As US demographics shift, the need for such organizations expands exponentially.

Each succeeding day, white takes up less space on the American colour wheel. Increasing numbers of people of colour contribute to the ‘browning’ of America. Hispanics recently surpassed blacks as America’s largest minority group. Minorities will soon constitute the American majority.

America’s burgeoning Hispanic population creates new challenges around cultural, language, and immigration issues. Moreover, economic competition, principally in the unskilled labor market, too often creates tensions cast in racial terms. Crosscultural education and understanding could
scarcely be more critical.

The challenge lies in deftly quilting together America’s diverse pieces and reinforcing her common threads. That demands leadership.

The shared humanity and noble democratic ideals which unite Americans trump our differences. We need not fear one another. Our true enemies, both at home and abroad, are ignorance and fear itself. How we treat the least and most despised among us is our truest mirror.

Ultimately, narrowing America’s racial divide and expanding her embrace of differences will not come by judicial fiat, but as a byproduct of a sustained commitment on the part of individuals and groups, public and private, secular and sectarian. It will take all of us.

There is no silver bullet, no miracle elixir, no panacea. We must each simply lend ourselves to the struggle for equality, inclusivity and universal human dignity. The words of American tennis ace and humanitarian, Arthur Ashe, ring as true in race matters as in the context of personal achievement: ‘To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.’

Hannibal B Johnson is an author, attorney, and consultant specializing in diversity issues, human relations, and non-profit management and governance.


17 May 1954 In Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the US Supreme Court declares that the racial segregation of schools violates the constitution.

1955-6 African-Americans boycott the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, for over a year after Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. As a result, the Supreme Court rules against segregation on buses.

September 1957 US troops are sent to Little Rock High School in Arkansas to enforce desegregation.

1960 African-American students refuse to leave the lunch-counter in a whites-only café in Greensboro’, North Carolina. Fifty-four similar sit-ins follow in 15 Southern cities. Some cafés desegregate: but the main pay-off is the public awareness generated.

1961 An inter-racial group of ‘Freedom Riders’ are violently attacked when they travel by interstate bus from Washington DC to New Orleans, to test the ban on segregated transport.

1963 Civil rights leader Medgar Ever is assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi.

1964 Three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, are murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi: no one is prosecuted. Twenty-fourth Amendment bans poll taxes, a fee paid by voters in federal elections which effectively disenfranchised African-Americans. Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination in jobs and public places.

1964 and 1965 Riots in Harlem, New York, and Watts, Los Angeles

1965 Voting Rights Act provides voting safeguards for African-Americans.

1968 Fair Housing Act bans discrimination in housing.

April 1968 Assassination of Martin Luther King.


In 1964 26 per cent of African-Americans aged over 24 had a high school diploma; in 2002, 79 per cent.

In 1964 41.8 per cent of black Americans lived in poverty; in 2002, 23.9 per cent.

In 1970 there were 1,469 African-American elected officials; in 2001, 9,101.

Half of all black married couples earn $50,000 or more each year. African-American
buying power approaches $700 billion dollars annually.

Two thirds of American prisoners come from racial and ethnic minorities. An African-American baby boy has a one in three chance of going to prison during his lifetime; the chances for a white baby boy are one in 17. Out of every eight black American men in their twenties, one is in prison as you read this.

In 1993 the United Nations Development Report rated the US sixth in the world in its
human development index (judged by average life expectancy, education levels and income).
But if the US had been rated as two nations, white and black, white America would have ranked first in the world, and black America 31st.

Sources: Paint Magazine; Drum Major Institute, Target Market News, www.sentencingproject.org; UNDP

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0