This was my column in the Sun-Times yesterday—I didn't post it here because I wanted to comment on Jimmy Armstrong on the day of his funeral. But I didn't want this to sink into the mists either. Not a ton of reaction to it, which is a shame. I think the subject might be too grim for people to think about.
Linda Brown is not as famous as, say, Rosa Parks. Yet she is a civil rights pioneer too. As a 9-year-old third-grader in Topeka, Kansas, in 1950, Linda wasn’t allowed to attend the Sumner School, a few blocks from her home, along with Mona and Guinevere and her other friends living in their integrated neighborhood.
Rather, she had to walk half a mile and catch a bus to the all-black Monroe School, two miles away.
Her father, Oliver Brown, joined a group of 13 black parents suing the school board in February 1951 — the famous case is named after him because he was the sole male plaintiff, so his name was listed first. The case became Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling whose 60th anniversary was Saturday.
The case ended the “separate but equal” legal fiction used to justify segregation of black students from white.
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race,’’ the Court declared, “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.”
Prophetic words, particularly since the system of segregation wasn’t undone. Now instead of being enforced by law, it’s maintained by economics and geography.
What happened? The law changed, but hearts and minds did not, especially white hearts and minds set on keeping old ways. The ruling was met with a formal rebellion known as “massive resistance” in the South — a decade of chaos, as black students tried to enroll in white schools. It could take a platoon of National Guardsmen to do it.
Up in the broad-minded North, we savored the show, forgetting that segregation here was just as extreme but maintained in a different style. In Chicago, it was the result of brutally enforced residential segregation, whose logic was: A black family couldn’t move into a house in a white area if their potential neighbors burned it down first. If thwarted, white Chicagoans fled rather than mingle with blacks, first to private and parochial schools, then to the suburbs.The Brown court case shouldn't be celebrated as a change so much as mourned as a lost opportunity. This is a problem that we should put our full attention to, not nod at on anniversaries. If all people are created equal—and they are—then the relative poverty and dysfunction of poor black areas of the city is an artifact of the past, as is the comfort and success of upscale white areas.
In 1980, whites comprised half the city but only 18.4 percent of public schools when the Justice Department sued Chicago Public Schools for having a "continuing system-wide effect of segregating students on a racial and ethnic basis."
The white school population kept shrinking. Now it's below 9 percent. Trying to desegregate CPS, a wag wrote, is like trying to bake an apple pie with a teaspoon of apples.
White flight guaranteed desegregation never got a chance to work. Nor was the problem relegated to the '50s. In 1990, Carroll Elementary in Ashburn/Wrightwood was 37 percent white. Then a white man was shot and killed during a robbery in 1993, and a realtor and a woman she was showing a house were raped. Suddenly the neighborhood flipped. In 1999, Carroll Elementary's white population was 1.7 percent.
As important as the issue is, to talk about blacks in the public schools is to miss a key point. Between 1970 and 1990, the white population of CPS fell by 75 percent. But the Hispanic student population climbed by about the same amount. African-Americans aren't even the majority of the city's public schools anymore. CPS is 44 percent Latino, 41 percent black; in 1986 it had been 60 percent black. A reminder that while we're looking back at the unresolved civil rights struggles of the past, a new unresolved struggle—the integration of Hispanics into national civic life—generally is ignored.
Today, the law isn't the problem. Official brutality isn't the problem. The problem is the inertia of a system built up and maintained by both, continuing on its own accord in this segregated city, a Frankenstein's monster America created over centuries and can't stop now. As bad as the past was, at least then some thought this might be fixed. Who believes that now? Sixty years is a long time. But not long enough to untangle this knot of tragedy and lost opportunity that our grandparents and great-grandparents wove and left for us. Thanks, gramps.
Oliver Brown, by the way, died of a heart attack in 1961. His daughter Linda still lives in Kansas, where she helped create a foundation to foster educational equality.