Today marks the 59th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared public school segregation by race to be unconstitutional. The Court’s unanimous decision, however, left desegregation largely in the hands of local school officials, famously requiring them to implement the decision “with all deliberate speed.”
As it turned out, “deliberate” was the operative word. Millions of American children began and ended their public school education in segregated schools after the Brown decision was handed down. In 1966, twelve years after Brown, I was attending an all-white public school in Atlanta, Georgia, supposedly the South’s great oasis of racial harmony and progress (according to a fascinating timeline of events in the Atlanta Public Schools I ran across this morning, 4% of black students and 7% of white students in Atlanta were attending integrated schools at this point; I wasn’t among them.) That same year my high school played a football game against an African-American high school, the first time that had happened in Georgia (there was a massive deployment of state troopers at the game to deter a “race riot.”).
If you look at the timeline I linked to above, the incredibly resourceful efforts of white southerners and their elected representatives at every level of government to resist school desegregation, utilizing threats, lies, false promises, evasions, and every pettifogging bureaucratic and legal tactic known to mankind, becomes painfully apparent.
My point here isn’t to demonize white southerners, but simply to remind myself and readers that what we often blithely refer to as the “struggle for social progress” really is a struggle. By some measurements we aren’t much closer to the goal of giving every American child access to quality public education than we were in 1954 (one source claims that overall public schools are as segregated today as they were 40 years ago). And while I doubt that in the grand scheme of things the effort to secure meaningful access to quality health care for all Americans is an important as school desegregation, I do know we cannot expect the Affordable Care Act of 2010–itself a half-measure, though an important one–to be any more self-executing than Brown or the years of decisions and legislative initiatives that followed it.