Making sense of Brown v. Board in light of today’s struggles over school reform

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In education there is no bigger legal challenge in history more famous than the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

That suit, brought by the NAACP, was a largely successful strike against state sanctioned discrimination against black and brown students.

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Rev. Oliver Brown – whose name has become synonymous with the landmark legal case, joined the Rock The Schools podcast to talk about Brown v. Board, education, and school choice. You can listen to the discussion below, but here are some of her comments edited to make them easier to read:

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson

 

On her first recognition that her family had been involved in a groundbreaking legal case:

Coming home from school as an 8th grader and seeing a white man I did not recognize standing on the porch. We lived in an integrated neighborhood so seeing people of other races was not unusual but I didn’t know this man. I got closer and he noticed my reluctance to approach him, he stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Charles Kuralt with CBS news and I’m doing an on the road show for the 10th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.”

On how the case came about:

In our city it began appropriately so with the NAACP and it’s leader at the time, a man by the name of McKinley Burnett. He decided that he was going to organize a challenge that would include Federal intervention in segregated schools. There were 11 school segregation cases in the state of Kansas before Brown vs. The Board of Education. Three of those early cases were also in Topeka so he was following a very long standing tradition when he set out in 1948 to convince the school board that it was time to really make a policy shift and desegregate the elementary schools.

On how the Brown family became involved:

The NAACP decided to recruit parents that had elementary aged children, which is how my father ended up getting our family involved. His participation was almost coincidental.A knock at the door. A friend of his who was one of the attorneys in the NAACP, part of the team recruiting asked my father if he would be willing to join their campaign as one of the Plaintiffs because it was a class action lawsuit they were putting together.

Meet the Brown parents:

My mom was 29 years old at the time. Dad was 32. They were young people. They were not activists. They didn’t belong to the NAACP. My dad ended up being the central figure because the final roster included 12 moms, homemakers, married women, so gender we believe is why he became the central figure in the Topeka case.

On the role and power of parents:

Parents really understand what’s going on because they have so little choice. Much like Brown parents, parents today need to align themselves with like-minded advocates, policymakers, and civil rights organizations so they can speak truth to power. We need to recognize, respect and honor the role of parenting. Parents know that education can help break the cycle of poverty but sadly what I observed as a teacher back in the 70’s, – and it’s also true today – the social economic status of the parents impacts how the system views them. There is a lack of willingness to fully engage parents as partners in their child’s education.

On the low expectations of teachers for black children:

The classroom teachers, some of my fellow educators who were white, were not as willing to engage with parents of color. And they certainly were not as willing to set the high standards that we all grew up with when it came to expectations for students of color. I watched that decline up close and personal. Our country had a major opportunity that we missed after Brown, after the civil rights movement. We missed that opportunity by not having the cultural competency training that could’ve helped a lot of teachers. Their biases came into the classroom with them and those biases often impacted the educational options that set outcomes for their children.
You know children have to believe you care about them. They have to believe they’re important. They have to believe that education is important. They must have high expectations and standards. It requires an awful lot of initiative.

On what really drove Brown v. Board’s push for integration:

Brown was about having access to the resources and equal educational opportunity. The money follows white children, let’s be honest. So it was about following the money, following the opportunity, following the resources, following the access to excellence moreso than the complexion of the person sitting in the seat next to you.

On her father’s concerns about the impact of integration on black educators:

His concern immediately after Brown was announced was what would happen to the teachers in the black schools? In 1953 the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools right before the court was to hear Brown sent out a letter to the African American teachers who had been teaching for 3 years or less, I guess what they considered non-tenure, told them in that letter that if the Plaintiffs succeed you will not have a job. In his way of thinking there would not be enough white parents willing to have African American teachers for their children for them to be retained. So before school started in the fall of 1954, he made good on that promise and released a lot of those black educators. When schools were integrated in Topeka the educators were integrated as well. And for one year he issued a policy that if I’m a fourth grade teacher in your school now, now you have a black teacher in your school for the first time, you have to call every white parent of fourth graders in your school to get their approval.


“Our children are just as smart, just as capable, just as accomplished, or can be, as any other child.”


 On the opportunity charter schools offer:

First of all, we’ve lost so many generations fighting over how we do education. Magnet schools…is it neighborhood schools? Is it this? Is it that? Is it charter schools? Is it vouchers? Is it school choice? We have been fighting since 1954. If charter schools have the opportunity for flexibility, innovation, to be able to show a difference in improving math scores and reading scores; I don’t want to see more children languishing in traditional public schools while policymakers fight. I’m of the opinion that educational options have to be on the table. Our children are just as smart, just as capable, just as accomplished, or can be, as any other child.

On the push of today’s NAACP to halt the growth of charter schools:

Before you take such a public stance on something you point out that you worked on yourself, historically to give African Americans options to school improvement, better options, better access for their children, let’s have a sit down. Let’s examine the Stanford University studies on charter schools. Let’s talk to the people that are charter school administrators. Let’s talk to the parents who have children that are succeeding in those schools. Let’s talk to the parents who are on the waiting lists. Let’s have a sit down before you do that. We were not afforded that opportunity to sit down with the leadership with the NAACP before that vote was put before the membership. I’m kind of heartbroken about that.

Listen to the podcast with Dr. Brown Henderson…