In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that segregated schools were unconstitutional. This ruling overturned the long held standard of “separate but equal” that was established by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In theory, the Brown ruling also eliminated segregated educational facilities. Sixty years after the Brown decision, the issue of racial segregation in public schools is still an area of concern for parents, students and policymakers. There are growing suspicions on the part of many observers that, although the United States is definitely becoming more diverse in general, an interesting pattern is unfolding in our public schools that is giving way to what some are referring to as school resegregation. However, for me and many others who were educated in public schools in the Deep South, the idea of resegregation seems somewhat foreign because our schools never integrated.
I was educated in the Lowndes County Public School System in Alabama. Lowndes is a rural county in the Alabama Black Belt region. I do not recall attending a single class with a non-black classmate until my sophomore year at Alabama State University. In Lowndes, it is generally accepted that black children attend the public schools and white children attend the private schools. As a way to circumvent school desegregation efforts, many white parents got together to establish private segregation academies. Segregation academies, also referred to as “seg academies,” are non-sectarian private schools that started after the Brown decision. In a 2002 article by Birmingham News on the Alabama Black Belt region, reporter Carla Crowder interviewed a man named Maurice “Sonny” Marlett, one the founders of Lowndes Academy, the private academy in my hometown. Marlett is quoted as saying that he “would have no objection to an integrated school if (whites) are not in the minority.” Since Lowndes County is 75% black and 25% white, if white children attended the public schools today they would likely be in the minority.
Lowndes County is not unique with regards to the public/private educational structure. In the Hollow Hope, Gerald Rosenberg points out that between 1961 and 1970, there was a 242 percent increase in the number of non-sectarian private schools in the Southeast. Theses academies were particularly prevalent in the Deep South, but they existed all over the country. The private academies throughout the South have more in common than racial makeup and founding purpose. Many of them have school mascots that reference the Civil War: the Rebels, the Generals, and the Colonels. These academies operated outside the scope of the Brown ruling. Since the ruling did not apply to them, the creation of these academies was a way to keep segregation intact. Today, of course, almost no American would openly embrace what was once the reigning ethos of segregated schools. Unfortunately, though, everyday thousands of children in America are educated in classrooms that are just as racially homogeneous as classrooms were prior to Brown.
The effects and aftermath of the Brown decision have been observed, studied, and analyzed by various social scientists. Although the Supreme Court held that public schools should neither be separate nor unequal, research continues to show that they are both. As we reflect on the legacy of Brown, it is important to not only highlight the successes made possible by the landmark ruling, but to also point out the impact that the blatant defiance to ruling continues to have on many communities.