Myth Busters

Participants tell real story of Brown v. Board

There’s the familiar story about the historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case. And then there’s the real story.

Separating fact from urban legend was the mission of legal historians, scholars and actual participants in the celebrated case during “Pursuing the Dreams of Brown and the Civil Rights Act: A Living History of the Fight for Educational Equality,” an unprecedented joint symposium sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and Michigan State University.

The event featured two days of presentations and panel discussions conducted simultaneously on both campuses, with live speakers at each campus viewed by real-time video-conference at the other.

One of the most anticipated panels featured litigants and attorneys from the historic 1954 Brown case, which ended legalized school desegregation in the U.S. Participants included Jack Greenberg, the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. Professor of Law at Columbia University, who was part of the NAACP legal team in Brown; and Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of plaintiff Oliver Brown and founding president of the Brown Foundation; who were both at UMKC. Joining the discussion from East Lansing, Mich., were Prof. Patricia Edwards of Michigan State, who was in the first wave of school integration in high school in Albany, Ga.; and George Brookover, the son of the late Dr. Wilbur Brookover, a Michigan State Sociology professor who was an expert witness in the Brown case.

“We are peeling back the layers so you will know what really happened,” Henderson said, agreeing with most of the panel that an enormous amount of misinformation and “urban legends” surround the 60-year-old case today.

For example, Henderson said, there is the popular misconception that Brown was an isolated local case filed by black residents of Topeka, Kan., seeking localized relief from segregation. In truth, the case was part of a long-term national legal and political strategy led by NAACP attorney – and later Supreme Court justice – Thurgood Marshall.

“It was a very complex situation,” Henderson said. “And Kansas was a hotbed of legal activity at the time. A lot of people don’t know that Kansas has a unique history – we were once even progressive.”  After the civil war, she said, state officials sent emissaries to the South to encourage freed slaves to move to Kansas.

Another myth is that the defendants in the case fought vigorously to defend segregation. Brookover called the defense case “a weak presentation” and Greenberg said the defendants were more concerned with the court of public opinion than the court of law.

“They were viewing the trial as a show, and they were thinking about what kind of show they wanted to put on for the world,” Greenberg said.

The conversation then turned to whether race is still a relevant issue in education, 60 years after Brown.  Panelists agreed it is as relevant as ever.

Edwards, a distinguished professor of education at Michigan State, said teaching subject matter such as algebra or grammar is not sufficient.

“We have to teach people how to interact with each other,” Edwards said. “When white people walk into a classroom full of black students, they are going to make generalizations. Race is already present.”

Greenberg added, “When race is the question, you can’t take it out of the question.”

Henderson said multicultural education, with a strong ethnic component, is important for all students. She said young white people descended from immigrants have lost touch with their own cultural history; they would benefit from knowing, for example, that the first waves of Irish immigrants to America “were herded into ghettos and treated as less than human.”

Edwards said white teachers in classrooms with students of color should take the issue head-on. “I teach my white students to say, ‘I have not lived your experiences, but I want to learn about them’.”

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