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Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education and Furthering its Vision

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the U.S. Supreme Court's most profound decisions, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS, handed down on May 17, 1954. We also reaffirm our commitment to ensure that the dream of Brown becomes a reality.

This guide contains background information, relevant Jewish sources, Reform Movement policy resolutions, action and advocacy opportunities, programming around race and education, and links to other useful materials.

The Commission on Social Action passed a resolution in March encouraging congregations to commemorate Brown's 50th anniversary in their prayer services and community programs. Jewish texts and other resources are available on this site to aid in including the themes of Brown in sermons and other aspects of synagogue life. We hope congregations will lift up these themes throughout the year and beyond.


History and Overview

The Case

Since the turn of the 20th century, the Southern states had a legal justification for requiring black students to attend segregated schools. The Supreme Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld segregated railroad car seating in Louisiana on the grounds that "separate but equal" seating did not violate the black passengers' rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

By the 1950s many blacks, believing that the best hope for racial equality lay in education, looked to the NAACP to mount a concerted legal attack on school segregation. After World War II, the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, under the leadership of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, set its sights on winning a case that would overturn the 1896 Plessy ruling. Oliver L. Brown's daughter had been refused admission to third grade at her neighborhood school because of the color of her skin, and the Brown family took their fight for equal opportunity to the highest court in the land. The Brown case actually involved four communities, whose cases were combined before the Supreme Court: two rural districts - Clarendon County, SC and Prince Edward County, VA - and two urban - Topeka, KS and Wilmington, DE.

On December 9, 1952, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on all four of the cases on the Brown docket. When asked by Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter for his definition of "equal" during oral arguments in the case, counsel Thurgood Marshall replied, "Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place."

Even after several hearings, the court debated the case for months as Chief Justice Earl Warren negotiated for a unanimous decision which he felt was crucial to ensure Southern compliance with what was sure to be an unpopular ruling. Eventually the two dissenting justices were won over only after a major compromise: the anti-segregation ruling would be implemented gradually rather than at once, contrary to what the NAACP had requested.
The historic decision was announced at 12:52 p.m. on May 17, 1954, by Chief Justice Warren. Stressing the fact that public education was "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms," Warren voiced the Court's opinion that separating black children "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race 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." The crucial reversal of Plessy came in the most famous part of the ruling: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

After the Ruling
Brown represents the nation's commitment to equal educational opportunity for all children. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling was jubilantly received by blacks across the nation. A number of border states, as well as the District of Columbia, took rapid steps to desegregate their school systems. However, the states of the Deep South used the gradual implementation decision as a pretext for years of delay and defiance. The Court had left implementation up to state and local authorities, setting no firm deadlines for compliance and issuing instead the general guideline of a "prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance" and stating that desegregation should occur "with all deliberate speed."

Southern states responded with hundreds of laws and resolutions that effectively blocked or limited desegregation. One popular tactic was the pupil-placement law, which gave local school authorities the prerogative of arbitrarily placing students in any school they chose, as long as they maintained that the placement was for psychological, academic, or any other purposes besides race. Other ways of circumventing the desegregation ruling included shutting down schools facing desegregation orders or providing tuition for students who chose to attend segregated private schools. The southern states remained largely unchecked in their legislative resistance to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which received little support from the other branches of the federal government. Southern members of Congress openly incited their states to defy the ruling and even voiced their determination to have the decision reversed. President Eisenhower, a conservative president courting white southern voters, refused to express support for the Brown decision or lobby in any way for its enforcement. Privately, he voiced regret at his appointment of the Supreme Court Justice who had been instrumental in obtaining the unanimous ruling.

Legal resistance to Brown was accompanied by harassment of black children who did attend newly desegregated schools, to the point that many parents gave up and reenrolled their children in all-black schools. Black children were attacked by shouting, rock-throwing mobs, mistreated by teachers, and tormented by their white classmates. In many communities there was a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities and growing membership in the White Citizens' Councils that were a more respectable version of the Klan. Resistance to integration led to a showdown between white extremists and the federal government in 1957 when President Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to disperse rioting white crowds preventing nine black students from entering Central High School.

The Sixties and Beyond
In 1960 only one-sixth of 1% of Southern black students attended a desegregated school. By 1964 this figure had risen to 2%, although two years later it remained under 1% for three states in the Deep South. Nevertheless, due to federal civil rights legislation, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and tougher federal enforcement of desegregation guidelines, the number of black students attending desegregated schools rose to 16% in 1967, 20% in 1968, and 58% by 1970. In 1971 the Supreme Court gave district courts the authority to use busing for the desegregation of school systems. However, this measure was undermined by decisions later in the decade exempting suburban school districts from participation in efforts to desegregate city schools by busing.

Due to white flight from southern cities to the suburbs and from public to private schools, black enrollment in integrated schools had once again fallen to under 50% by 1980. In 1986 the Brown v. Board of Education case was reopened in Topeka on grounds that full integration of the school system had not been achieved. Plaintiffs charged that the school board had provided ways for white parents to avoid sending their children to integrated schools and had drawn boundaries that preserved racially segregated school districts. A federal court eventually ordered the city to produce an integration plan. The urban North had become increasingly segregated as well, with over 60% of black students attending schools that were virtually all-black. By the mid-1990s most black children in the nation still attended schools where less than half the students were white.
For a detailed report on 50 years of demographic shifts in education, go to the Harvard Civil Rights Project to download their report Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare.

Though we have made great strides in the fifty years since this historic decision, the vision of Brown has yet to be fully realized in our nation. Schools in many areas of the country are "resegregating," and many public schools, particularly in minority communities, are failing because of inadequate funding, neglect, and violence. A "culture of failure" that undermines too many schools in this country maintains a tragic cycle of missed opportunities and wasted potential.

The Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education proved to be only one step in a long and arduous journey toward equality in the nation's schools, but the decision retains an important place in United States history as one of the most significant piece of jurisprudence in the 20th century. Legally, it is significant for its reversal of the 50-year-old "separate but equal" doctrine and an end to legalized segregation in America. Symbolically, it supplied hope and inspiration to those involved in the struggle for racial equality in the United States, both during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s and in the years that followed.

As the challenge of racial equality continues, we must work to build a society in which differences are embraced and opportunities made equally available - a society enriched by racial diversity, not segregated by it. As Jews, we have known overwhelming discrimination and segregation in our own history as a people. It is therefore particularly imperative that we do all we can to build a society that will leave no one behind.


The Reform Jewish Movement's Commitment to Racial Equality

The Commission on Social Action, at its meeting in March of 2004, passed a comprehensive resolution to both celebrate Brown and reaffirm its commitment to making its dream a reality.

Adopted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
March 2004

RESOLUTION ON COMMEMORATING THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY
OF BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION AND FURTHERING ITS VISION

THE COMMISSION ON SOCIAL ACTION OF REFORM JUDAISM RESOLVES TO:

1. Commemorate the Brown v. Board decision on the occasion of its 50th anniversary by:
a. Recognizing the contributions of civil rights leaders as well as the legal strategists, parents, and students who by their courage and conviction made Brown a reality;
b. Developing programmatic materials to aid our congregations and youth groups in organizing speaker forums, workshops, direct service projects, and advocacy efforts to further the promise of Brown;
c. Publishing these materials online as a "Brown v. Board Online Resource Guide for the Jewish Community" with background information, program suggestions, and sample sermons and biblical texts on race relations and education;
d. Encouraging synagogues to designate Shabbat Behar (May 14-15) 2004 as a movement-wide day to commemorate Brown's 50th anniversary in their prayer services and community programs, as that Torah portion teaches, "You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…" (Leviticus 25:10); and by
e. Encouraging our congregations to strengthen relationships and develop new partnerships with schools that serve low-income communities, guided by For The Sake Of The Children: A Synagogue Guide To Public School Partnerships (CSA 2003), and to form cooperative alliances with congregations, churches, mosques, and other like-minded organizations to achieve these goals;

2. Celebrate the impetus provided by Brown not only for the development of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, but also for its inspiration and galvanization of other minorities in their struggles for equal rights - women, aliens and immigrants, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians; and remember that Brown's legacy continues to inspire us in the ongoing struggle for social justice; and

3. Advocate for the realization of the dream of Brown to ensure that quality public education and related public programs are available to all children - regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, family structure, income level, gender, and disability or other special needs by:
a. Reaffirming our commitment to providing all children with a high quality, appropriate public school education and working to help close the achievement gap by advocating for increased funding for education, reduced class size, qualified teachers and administrators, modernized school facilities, dropout prevention programs, services for pregnant and parenting students, after-school programs, delinquency prevention programs, school safety programs, and increased parental involvement;
b. Strengthening our commitment to helping all young children prepare to succeed in school by improving the quality of and increasing access and funding to Head Start, Early Head Start, early childhood care and education programs, parental coaching programs, and comprehensive services for pregnant women, while making progress toward the establishment of publicly supported, high quality, comprehensive universal pre-school/pre-kindergarten programs;
c. Reaffirming our opposition to school voucher programs which divert desperately needed funds and attention from true public education reform, leaving behind those most in need of a quality education;
d. Supporting the maintenance of national, uniform quality standards, in federal programs, that encourage the optimal growth, development, and education of all children;
e. Ensuring that accountability systems for education and early childhood programs primarily serve to further the goals of education and that they receive adequate funding, use research-based assessment tools, account for graduation rate, accommodate students with special needs and students whose primary language is not English, are sensitive to the cultural and linguistic diversity of students, and include safeguards to protect the children most at risk of school failure from exclusion from early childhood programs and from dropping out of school;
f. Reaffirming our commitment to helping more students access higher education through increased federal support such as Pell grants; and by
g. Reiterating our commitment to maintaining affirmative action and fostering vibrant diversity and the full participation of minorities in all important aspects of society.


Reform Movement Policy

The Reform Jewish Movement has a long history of supporting civil rights and educational opportunity. Most notably, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the legislation itself was drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC by leaders from the Jewish and Civil Rights communities. The Union for Reform Judaism, with the Religious Action Center on the front lines, continues to fight for equal rights, an end to discrimination, and universally available quality public education.

URJ and CCAR Resolutions

Race

Resolution of 34th Council with Regard to Oppression of Racial and Religious Minorities, 1935

On Civil Rights, 1950

Housing Discrimination, 1959

Achieving Equality Under the Law, 1961

Commitment to Racial Justice, 1963

Discrimination in Housing, 1965

Civil Rights and Economic Justice, 1968

Racial Justice - A Jewish Reaffirmation, 1969

Race and the US Criminal Justice System, 1999

In Support of Promoting Awareness of African American Heritage and The History of Slavery in the United States

Civil Rights (Digests of CCAR resolutions adopted between 1889 and 1974)

Discrimination (Digests of CCAR resolutions adopted between 1889 and 1974)

Education

Federal Aid to Education, 1963

Public Education, 2001

Gender Equitable Education, 1993 (CCAR)

Bilingual Education, 1998 (CCAR)

Making Education a National Priority, 1998 (CCAR)

Resolution on Universal Pre-School/Pre-Kindergarten, 2001 (CCAR)


Jewish Sources

Speech by Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol at the Brown v. Board Ecumenical Service at First United Methodist Church in Topeka, KS

Shabbat Behar, May 14-15, 2004 / 23rd of Iyyar, 5764

This year, the jubilee Shabbat lands, quite appropriately, just before the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board (May 17, 2004). Rabbis and congregations are encouraged to make the themes of Brown part of their worship service that weekend, and/or to hold speaker forums or public lectures on related subjects to educate and mobilize their community. Relevant Jewish texts are included below.

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:
When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord.
……
You shall count off seven weeks of years--seven times seven years--so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month--the Day of Atonement--you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth direct from the field.
(Leviticus 25: 1-2, 8-12, JPS)

Diversity

If one sees a great crowd, one should thank God for not having made them all of one mind. For just as each person's face is different from another, so is each person's mind different from any other mind.
(Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 58a)

Here is a Talmudic statement that speaks directly to what we today often call diversity. The Rabbis were aware of the human tendency to seek homogeneity. They knew that we commonly choose friends on the basis of similar likes and dislikes and a shared world perspective rather than seek out friends whose lifestyle differs significantly from our own. The Rabbis also recognized the inherent difficulty in accepting our innate differences.
(Lori Lefkowitz on Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 58a)

Rabbi Akiva used to say: "Beloved is the human being - for the human was created in the image of God. God showed even greater love by letting the human being know that he or she was created in God's image."
(Mishnah Pirke Avot 3:14)

God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world: yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore, no one can declare to any race or color of people that they do not belong here since this soil is not their home.
(Yalkut Shimoni, 1:13)

Education

Any city that does not have a school in it shall be cut off [from all contact] until they find a teacher for the children.
(Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:1).

Be zealous with children of the poor, for from them learning will come forth.
(Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 81a)

The guardians of a city are the teachers of the young and the instructors of the old...If you see cities uprooted, know that it came about because they did not maintain teachers' salaries.
(J. Talmud, Hagiga 1:7)

Raba said: The number of students for one teacher should be twenty-five. If there are fifty students, they appoint two; if there are forty, they appoint an assistant, who is supported by the funds of the town.
(Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 22a)

Lack of learning results in poverty.
(Midrash)



What We Can Do

Programming

For The Sake Of The Children: A Synagogue Guide To Public School Partnerships is a new guide, created by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), which includes instructions and ideas for synagogues initiating partnership programs as well as descriptions of successful partnerships. Appendices summarizing current issues facing public schools, the Reform Movement's position on public education, and additional resources are also provided. Synagogues have many critical resources to provide schools struggling to meet the needs of students and equip them for success in life. Congregations can sponsor special projects, provide a volunteer base and organize special programs for students. Through such projects congregations will build new bridges within communities and ensure local children a strong educational foundation. To download this guide, click here. For more information contact Deena Fox at 212.650.4162 or dfox@urj.org.

Affirmative Action Simulation: Race and Diversity in College Admissions
Much of the debate over race and education in America these days takes place on college campuses and in the courts as the issue of affirmative action continues to spark heated debate. If Brown mandated integrated schools, then to what extent should institutions of higher education be allowed or required to consider race in their admissions processes? What does it actually take to get into college these days? How big a role does race play in college admissions?

This program simulates a college admissions process - participants form an admissions committee, review applications, and decide whom to accept, reject, or defer. The simulation game leads into a discussion on race, economic status, and other issues effecting economic, social, and educational opportunities. The discussion guide includes relevant Jewish texts and the Union for Reform Judaism resolution on affirmative action.
To download the program go to: Getting into College
To view the supplementary background, visit the RAC's Issue Page on Affirmative Action

Take Action
Tell your elected officials to continue working to further the legacy of Brown. Especially in this election year, let us renew our own personal commitment to the principles of Brown by reminding our politicians that prejudice should never be used as an election "strategy." You can find an easy link to do this electronically on the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights website: click here.

 


Advocacy

Civil Rights

FAIRNESS: The Civil Rights Act of 2004 (H.R. 3809 / S. 2088)
This bill is an important step toward ensuring the civil rights of workers and, indeed, of all Americans. Years of troublesome court rulings have diluted the impact of landmark civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To address shortcomings in current law, in areas such as age, disability, and gender discrimination, it is time for Congress to reassert itself as a strong defender of Americans' civil rights.

FAIRNESS: The Civil Rights Act of 2004 would ensure that workers have access to the courts when trying to address injustices, including discriminatory employment practices. State employees deserve the right to fight instances of age discrimination. Women, who only earn about 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, deserve the ability to ensure they receive equal pay for equal work. Immigrant workers deserve the right to be free from abusive employment practices. In the event of any of these forms of discriminatory treatment, all employees deserve the right to be heard in a court of law.

It has been more than a decade since Congress last passed a major civil rights bill, and the time has come to close loopholes in current law that leave America's workers unprotected. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the landmark 1964 Civil Act, we are reminded of how far we have come in the struggle for equality, and how far we still have to go to ensure that we fulfill the ideals of our nation. FAIRNESS: The Civil Rights Act of 2004 brings us closer to those ideals, and we urge Congress to consider and pass this important legislation with all due speed. The workers of America deserve no less.

FAIRNESS: The Civil Rights Act of 2004 has been introduced into Congress this session but needs your support for a successful vote. >For more information on the FAIRNESS Act and to take action


Education

Racial diversity in our public schools provides many societal and educational benefits. For example, diversity:

  • helps reduce stereotypes and prejudice
  • offers students better opportunities for learning how to function in integrated environments
  • promotes cross-racial understanding
  • helps students appreciate the differing cultural viewpoints, skills, and values they encounter
    True equality requires that all public schools be as good as the best public schools.
To make this a reality our elected officials must:

  • provide smaller classes for individualized attention: parents and teachers understand - and research confirms - that smaller classes make the biggest difference for low-income students in the early grades
  • hold all students to high expectations - and match those expectations with access to up-to-date books and materials as well as access to computers
  • place a qualified teacher in every classroom: minority, urban, and rural students are much more likely than white, suburban students to have a teacher who is not fully licensed and has little or no experience
Public Education Today: No Child Left Behind?

The most recent federal education law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), aims to maintain high standards for all students, teachers, and schools. However the bill raises many concerns about how its much publicized "accountability measures" will affect minority students, students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency, and students in low-income communities.

NCLB, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, affects all areas of K-12 education and is the most sweeping federal education legislation in decades. At various grade levels, schools must meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) qualifications on a set of standardized tests taken by all students. If AYP is not met in successive years, the school is slated for improvement, low-performing students must be provided with tutoring services, students are permitted to transfer to other public schools, and eventually, the school leadership may be completely restructured. NCLB also demands greater levels of teacher certification and school technology advancements. Two years into the law, the big picture goals of NCLB - high standards for all children - are widely praised by politicians and organizations on the right and the left.

However, several states have considered opting out of NCLB funding and its many requirements because of high-stakes accountability measures and the fact that the law is under-funded by more than $9 billion in the President's 2005 budget and $32 billion overall. NCLB is an "unfunded mandate" - meaning that it makes requirements of schools without giving them the necessary funds to make the required changes. Since the law requires schools to take a series of expensive steps to improve their performance, the lack of funds means many schools must now pay for new resources out of their own pockets. This can be devastating for schools already strapped for funds. A second major concern is that accountability standards with "high-stakes" testing focuses schools too heavily on test results. Many are worried that teachers will be persuaded to ignore material which is not included on exams, especially creative and socially interactive (though less "testable") activities and studies. Also, there is a danger that administrators may be more likely to allow low-performing students to drop out of school, thereby improving the school's average test scores. Of particular concern to supporters of equality for minority students are the risks that accountability systems pose to students with disabilities and students whose primary language is not English. These students have added difficulty taking standardized tests and require special attention and resources, which are not adequately provided by the underfunded law.

Contact your elected officials with your concerns about NCLB and in support of amendments to the law that would improve funding and prevent accountability standards from solely dictating school curricula. Go to http://nea.org/lac/esea/03nclb.html to see a list by the National Education Association of amendments which address some of the major concerns with NCLB. See also the LCCR's Education issue page for resources and advocacy suggestions.


Additional Links and Resources

Many civil rights and education organizations have created invaluable resources for Brown's 50th anniversary. If you are looking for more information about the history of Brown and the Civil Rights Movement, the politics of education policy, or how other groups are commemorating this historic court decision, these are good places to start. For ideas about types of events that synagogues could hold during 2004 to celebrate and explore Brown, take a look at the links below, most of which have lists of commemorative events, press releases, and bios of their leaders.

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism - Civil Rights Issue Page
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism - Affirmative Action Issue Page

National Education Association - Horizons of Opportunities: Celebrating 50 Years of Brown v. Board of Education May 17, 1954-2004

Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research

"Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education"
A year-long exhibition and educational initiative at the National Museum of American History. The central theme is that the Brown decision - through the efforts of lawyers, scholars, parents, students and community activists - transformed America. It opens May 15, 2004.

Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare?
NEA-Supported Study at Harvard Shows Return to School Segregation

NAACP - 50 Years and Beyond
NAACP - Commemorative Event
NAACP - Brown v. Board Education Equity Commission

US Department of Education-Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) Realize the Dream. Quality Education for All
LCCR Civil Rights Leaders Brown v. Board Interviews

The Case: The Majority Opinion in Brown v. Board of Education

Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law has links to several documents, including the personal perspective of Cheryl Brown Henderson, whose father lent his name to the case.

We are grateful to the Marjorie Kovler Institute for Black-Jewish Relations for its generous support of this website.



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