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Archive for Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Historical lessons

Brown v. Board of Education is a notable and honorable chapter in Kansas history.

March 17, 2004

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Kansans probably have some mixed feelings about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

On one hand, it's embarrassing, in hindsight, that a Topeka black family had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to gain permission for their daughter to attend the predominantly white school near their home. On the other hand, it is a point of pride that a Kansas case played a pivotal role in breaking down racial segregation in public schools and the rest of society.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme court decision in the Brown v. Board case, Kansas University sponsored a conference this week that made some of the history of that case come alive. The widow of Oliver Brown, whose name was attached to the case, recalled her husband's commitment to civil rights and her joy the day she heard about the ruling on the radio. The Court had struck down the principle of "separate but equal" and declared that segregated schools "are not 'equal' and cannot be made 'equal'" under the law.

It's hard to imagine now, but one of the arguments used in favor of segregated schools was that they reflected the segregated societies their students would graduate into. Even though modern blacks laud the landmark opinion, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the justice refers to "white schools" and "Negro schools," "white and colored children in public schools" -- terms that many find offensive today. Times have changed and, hopefully, will continue to change.

Many people don't realize that by the time Brown v. Board made it to the Supreme Court, it was the culmination of five desegregation cases from Kansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina and Virginia. According to information compiled for the new Brown v. Board historical site in Topeka, one of the justices later explained that the court decided to put Brown's name first "so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely Southern one."

Kansans should be proud of the fact that one of their own helped lead the charge to overturn school desegregation -- and the state's anti-slavery history helped make the impact of the decision felt nationwide.

The Brown v. Board of Education historical site, operated by the National Park Service, will open soon in the former Monroe Elementary School in Topeka. It will offer residents of Kansas, as well as visitors from outside the state, the opportunity to learn more about the racial struggles surrounding the school desegregation case.

As the nation faces remnants of old struggles and challenges of new diversity issues, it is a history from which we can continue to learn.

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