Fifty years on and still separate

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Stephen Phillips reports from the American South on the events staged to mark the end of forced school segregation


US schools marked the 50th anniversary of racially-desegregated classrooms on Monday, but the occasion was tinged with bitterness. Inequality in education persists, with black children doing less well than whites, in schools that are less well funded and increasingly ghettoised.

In a measure of school desegregation's importance in US history, both President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry visited Topeka, Kansas, where in 1954 eight-year old Linda Brown was forced to attend an all-black school. Linda's father sued the local board of education for her right to enrol at a white school nearer their home, sparking the Supreme Court's landmark "Brown v. Board" ruling.

Designating the school, Monroe elementary, a US monument, Mr Bush hailed May 17, 1954, as "a day of justice a long time coming".

"It changed America for the better and forever," Mr Bush said. "Fifty years ago today, nine judges announced that they had looked at the Constitution and saw no justification for the segregation and humiliation of an entire race."

The ruling was the main catalyst for the civil rights movement, led among others by Martin Luther King, which campaigned for equal voting, employment and housing rights and to end the "Jim Crow" practices of enforcing separate seating and eating places for black people on buses and trains, in cinemas and cafes.

Although it hosted the official ceremonies, the lawsuit in Topeka was actually an amalgam of five separate legal challenges to segregation. The original case that was argued before the Supreme Court, Briggs v. Elliot, came from the South Carolina hamlet of Summerton. Many think the judges elected to frame their ruling around Brown instead for fear of inflaming the race-based politics of America's South.

Today, Scott's Branch high, the school that sparked Briggs v. Elliot, also offers perhaps the most salutary glimpse of the failure of racial integration in America.

During segregation it was a rudimentary wooden building. Today the school is housed in a modern low-rise campus. But the vast majority of its 400-plus pupils are all black. More than 95 per cent of them qualify for free lunches, placing them at or below America's breadline; the school has been labelled underperforming; and the education authority is locked in a protracted legal wrangle over funding with state education chiefs they accuse of favouring wealthier, predominantly-white schools.

As for virtually all the local white children, in a pattern repeated across other rural Southern areas, they decamped for inexpensive local private schools, set up to dodge integration, in the Sixties and early Seventies.

Retracing the seven-mile walk to school that black students faced under segregation on Monday, Paulette Carter, 18, whose grandparents signed Briggs v. Elliot, was angry. "We can go wherever we want, but black and white people are still very separate by choice. White people have their own schools."

Elsewhere in America, ghettoised schools mirror socio-economic disparities, often polarised between wealthy, largely white suburban schools and under-resourced inner-city schools serving ethnic-minority children.

During the Seventies and Eighties, buses ferried children beyond their catchment areas to force diversity in the classroom, but have since been rolled back under pressure from middle-class suburbanites arguing for the right to seek the best schooling free from other considerations.

As legally enforced bussing has receded, US schools have steadily re-segregated. A 2003 Harvard study found that 70 per cent of blacks attend schools with mainly ethnic-minority pupils, leaving them as racially isolated as they were 35 years ago.

Reflecting the changed times, Summerton is placing its hopes in "providing the best possible education for children", said Leola Parks, executive assistant to Clarendon County's schools chief. "That way, hopefully whites will come - they'll have no excuses," she said.

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