Sunday, May 16, 2004

Taylor: Promise has yet to be fully realized

While the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education is being widely celebrated, relatively few people realize how the case worked a social revolution in this country.

The unanimous court ended the racial caste system - formal in the South, informal in the North - that had prevailed from the end of slavery through the 1950s.

BROWN vs. B.O.E.
Ruling that changed America
Jones: Education remains key to equality
Taylor: Promise has yet to be fully realized
'Brown' was our moral compass
BROWN vs. B.O.E. special section

The court's pronouncement raised the hopes of black people throughout the nation, and those hopes were given voice by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s direct protest movement. Violent repression of that movement touched the national conscience and led to the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s.

As one who started work in civil rights as a member of Thurgood Marshall's legislative staff in 1954, I can testify to the enormous change that has taken place - North and South.

The black civil rights movement provided a model for liberating women, Latinos, people with disabilities and others. The black middle class has tripled, in part because desegregation opened real educational opportunities for young people.

But the promise of Brown has yet to be fully realized, particularly in cities such as Cincinnati. I worked in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a class of African-American children in a long-running school desegregation suit.

We reached a settlement that increased desegregation, primarily through the innovative use of magnet schools and measures that called for improvements in the quality of education in schools that remained racially isolated.

But Cincinnati public officials and business leaders never truly committed themselves to making the remedy work.

Magnet schools that had strong leadership and curricular offerings were allowed to proliferate so that they no longer served to desegregate. The school system did not choose the best early-grade improvement programs. Nor did it make good use of the handful of principals and teachers who had brought progress to their schools, isolating them rather than tapping their skills to help other schools.

The teachers union, while professing a commitment to desegregation, undermined the program by insisting that teachers should be assigned to schools strictly by seniority and preference even at the cost of contributing to segregated facilities.

Union officials also argued that the extraordinary suspension and expulsion rate for Cincinnati elementary school children was entirely due to dysfunctional low-income families and other problems at home. They had no explanation or apparent interest in the fact that at some schools with high proportions of poor and minority children, discipline rates were low and achievement was high, suggesting that good school leadership is an important variable.

Although there are some outstanding business leaders in Cincinnati, some who were closest to the school system were more concerned with public relations than with the system's ability to turn out students prepared for the world of work.

On the day I arrived in Cincinnati, Judge Walter Rice dismissed suburban schools districts from the case.

I thought for a while that some might be interested in participating in an inter-district program on a voluntary basis, but I was soon disabused of that idea.

Thus, suburban parents in Cincinnati never got the opportunity to learn, as have parents in the suburbs of St. Louis and Boston, that their children would profit from attending racially diverse schools that would better prepare them to live in a multiracial nation and world.

It is not too late for Cincinnati to reap for all of its children the promise of Brown - but it would require leadership that has so far not been evident in the community.


William Taylor has been a civil rights lawyer since 1954. Carroll and Graf will publish his memoir, "The Passion of My Times," in September.

BROWN vs. B.O.E.
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'Brown' was our moral compass
BROWN vs. B.O.E. special section

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