The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, KS (Flickr Commons)
(Editor’s Note: With the 65th anniversary of this landmark U.S. Supreme Court case upon us, the Capital-Star is running a package of op-Eds this Sunday morning examining its impact and enduring legacy.)
As Pennsylvanians, we should take pride in knowing that Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel on many of the cases that helped overturn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), began his journey as an undergrad at our nation’s oldest historically black college, Lincoln University in Chester County.
But what should be an occasion for celebration, the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, one of the most seminal Supreme Court decisions in modern history, instead leaves us clinging to the hope that the landmark case’s goals will be fully realized in the 21st century.
Brown v. Board is recognized as the Supreme Court case that unanimously ordered the desegregation of public schools and declared that separate is not only inherently unequal but unconstitutional.
It determined that school segregation is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision of equal protection under the law clause. In the legal community, Brown v. Board is “stare decisis” otherwise known as common-law precedent or “settled law,” a law no longer subject to reasonable dispute.
Yet 65 years later, schools across the country are becoming more racially segregated and remain unequally funded along racial and socioeconomic lines.
Restrictions on ballot access, including in Pennsylvania, make it more difficult to vote and advance policy to address this inequality. Brown v. Board itself may be unsafe given the Trump administration’s preference for judicial nominees that are anything but fair-minded constitutionalists.
More, they lack the temperament and courage to walk in the same company as Marshall. And they show little inclination to honor precedent, with such decisions as Roe v. Wade under threat.
Sixty-five years later, we’re failing the spirit of Brown, and the struggle continues.
This failure can be seen in Pennsylvania. Every child in our Commonwealth should have the right to a quality publicly funded education.
Yet Pennsylvania has the biggest gap in funding between rich and poor schools in the entire country. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that part of Pennsylvania lawmakers’ unwillingness to address this issue is that it would most benefit the poorest of children and particularly families of color.
Lawmakers did establish a fair funding formula in 2016, but now they won’t fund it adequately. Children’s zip codes at birth should not determine the quality of their education—but it still does. Here’s a proposed outline of what lawmakers should do in the spirit of Brown.
A record number of lifetime-appointed jurists under the Trump administration for our federal courts have refused to say out loud that Brown v. Board was rightly decided during their Senate judiciary hearings.
Pennsylvania’s junior U.S. Senator, Republican Pat Toomey, has voted to confirm every single one of them which includes his ringing endorsement to elevate Judge Peter Phipps from the Western District of Pennsylvania to the powerful 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
During Phipps’s hearing he tap-danced around saying that Brown was correctly decided. (Note that Senator Bob Casey vehemently opposes Phipps’s elevation to the Circuit Court.)
If you’re looking to speak truth to power and push back against a judiciary in crisis, reach out to both senators and tell them nominees for our federal benches should have no trouble affirming Brown’s decision—Justices Roberts and Kennedy didn’t have any problems forcefully confirming the decision during their hearings, and neither did hundreds of nominees prior to the current administration.
As Primary Day approaches on Tuesday, May 21, it should be noted that Brown’s May 17 anniversary falls on the same day as another watershed moment in our history.
It’s the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the “Give Us the Ballot” speech. It was on this day, 62 years ago, that Dr. King made his national debut as one of this country’s greatest orators.
Three years after the Brown decision, the federal government and the executive branch hadn’t caught up with the judicial ruling, and schools continued to remain segregated due to lack of enforcement by President Eisenhower. King spoke to a sympathetic crowd in the nation’s capital about what giving African-Americans the ballot (the right to vote) would mean, not only for our public schools but for civil rights in general.
King said: “Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine. Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954.”
If you want to honor the spirit of Brown, get out and vote.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Kadida Kenner is the director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which includes the projects We The People-PA and Why Courts Matter-PA. She writes from Harrisburg. Her work appears monthly.
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