By Rev. Edward Pinkney, 2/6/2017
In 1954, in a case called Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that separating the races in schools deprives Negro children of equal education opportunity. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” Chief Justice Warren wrote. In addition, Justice Warren also said school segregation creates in minority children 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. The Court declared school segregation laws unconditionally unconstitutional.
The decision stunned and enraged Southern segregationists. In March 1956, a group of US senators and representatives from the eleven states of the Old Confederacy signed a statement, which was called the Southern Manifesto. In it, they declared their opposition to the Supreme Court decision, and they urged that schools fight any attempts to integrate. As a result of resistance by segregationists, which was sometimes violent, most southern schools were not integrated until 10 to 20 years after the Supreme Court decision in the Brown case.
Black children’s experiences in segregation or segregated schools differed widely. In some classrooms, teachers were hesitant to talk about civil rights for fear of antagonizing the white establishment. In others, teachers instilled in their students a pride in black achievement. As in all schools, segregation, whether segregated or integrated, some teachers repeated past lessons so that few were inspired and many were bored. But, other teachers challenged their students to think, to analyze, to stretch, their minds. As Claudette Colvin said of her teachers, “They were pricking our minds.” The young people who tell their stories in the section on segregation or segregated schools reflect the full range of these experiences.
In every black school, the students knew that their facilities and materials were inferior to those in white schools. According to James Roberson, a former school principal, the second class citizenship was strongly evident and felt in the educational system. Never receiving new textbooks was quite revealing to me. Our books were used, marked up, worn out books from white schools.
But despite the limited resources, black children in segregated schools were, at least, in safe environments. Their first experience of attending integrated schools was startling by contrast. Although black children did not anticipate warm welcomes, neither did they expect the depth and extent of the hostility they encountered from white students and also, too often, from teachers. Yet they persisted, and in that persistence, exhibited an extraordinary strength and single-mindedness of purpose.
Every attempt at integration, there was resistance from segregationists. In the case of Ricky and Pat Shuttlesworth, the violence was so great that they never even entered the school they were trying to integrate. For the others who were able to enroll, they were met with taunts, even attacks, by other students and by often shameful behavior by teachers.
The courage exhibited by black children in America during this time of severe struggles, verbal attacks, and physical violence, made a difference not only in each of their lives, but for all others who followed.