Remembering Brown: Silence, Loss, Rage, and Hope, 1954

Segregated School in West Memphis, Arkansas, 1949
Public domain image

In the following article, James A. Banks, the Kerry and Linda Killinger Professor and Director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, describes his Arkansas community’s reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision when it was announced in 1954.

I was in the seventh grade at the Newsome Training School in Aubrey, Arkansas when the United States Supreme Court handed down Brown vs. Board of Education on May 17, 1954. My most powerful memory of the Brown decision is that I have no memory of it being rendered or mentioned by my parents, teachers, or preachers. In my rural southern black community, there was a conspiracy of silence about Brown. It was completely invisible.

A conspiracy of silence
I can only speculate about the meaning of the silence about Brown in the Arkansas delta in which racial segregation was codified in both law and custom in every aspect of our lives. The only public library in Lee County was 9 miles from our family farm in Marianna, the county seat that had a population of 4,550. Although I was an avid reader, I could not use the public library. It was for whites only. The only time I saw the inside of the public library was when the choir from my all-black high school entertained a white civic group in the library. We had to see second-run movies at the all-black Blue Haven Theatre. To see first-run movies, we had to go to the white Imperial Theatre and enter the “Colored entrance,” which led upstairs where the projection room was also located. We could hear the rattle of the movie projector as we tried to concentrate on the movie.

Marianna and Lee County, Arkansas epitomized the institutionalized discrimination and racism that existed throughout the Deep South in the mid-1950s. The conspiracy of silence about Brown in Lee County among whites was probably caused by fear that news of Brown might disrupt the institutionalized racist system of segregation that had been established in Lee County in the years after Reconstruction. That system was never publicly challenged or questioned by whites or blacks. Black resistance to racism was deep but covert. Blacks wore a mask as they feigned contentment around whites as their anger seethed below the surface, ready to explode. The statue of Robert E. Lee that towered above the park in the Town Square symbolized the racial oppression that gripped the community in which I, and many other southern blacks, came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. My teachers and preachers surely knew about the Brown decision and must have been quietly joyous about it. However, it must have also evoked fear in them as well, about losing their jobs and their schools. They must have quietly discussed Brown among themselves, out of the earshot of the children and certainly out of the earshot of whites. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took the five cases that constituted the Brown decision to the Supreme Court. The white establishment throughout the Deep South regarded the NAACP as a subversive and dangerous organization. It was viewed with as much suspicion and animosity as was the Communist Party in the North. Black teachers were often fired by school boards in the South when it was learned that they were members of the NAACP. The white school boards controlled both black and white schools. Consequently, for black teachers to spread the word about the Brown decision, especially among students, would probably have been considered a subversive and dangerous act.

Education for black uplift
The silence about Brown that haunted Lee County and the lack of actions related to it continued throughout my elementary school years (Grades 1 through 8) and high school years (9 to 12). I attended Newsome Training School until I graduated and then entered all-black Robert Russa Moton High School in Marianna. Moton was a protégé of Booker T. Washington who became principal of Tuskegee Institute when Washington died. Many black schools throughout the Deep South were named for Moton. I graduated from Moton in 1960. Throughout my elementary and high school years and without any focus on Brown or school desegregation, our black teachers taught us to be citizens of both the black community and of American society. Each day in morning exercise, we said the Pledge of Allegiance and sang both the Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the American national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The lives and triumphs of black leaders Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, Robert Russa Moton, George Washington Carver, and Marian Anderson were interspersed throughout our curriculum. Our teachers tried hard to make us productive citizens of U.S. society as well as to instill in us a commitment to the uplift of the black community. Yet, I can remember no explicit efforts to prepare us to function within a desegregated society, a society whose possibility my teachers had not fully imagined or grasped.

The price they paid
Brown had no real or specific meaning in isolated rural communities in the South until a group of blacks organized and took on the white power structure. This was a difficult fight and those blacks who did paid a high price. When a group of blacks in Little Rock decided to push for the desegregation of Central High School in 1957, Governor Orval Faubus used all the power of the state to resist desegregating the school. The black civil rights activists who led the movement to desegregate Central High School, such as Daisy Bates, were steadfast in their resolve to end racial segregation at Central High. After a long and bitter struggle, they were successful. However, the nine black students who desegregated Central High, and Mrs. Bates, paid a dear price. The ugly racial incidents to which these students were victims left deep scars that endured. As the students walked to school each day, white mobs, which included white fathers and mothers of other Central High students, hurled racial epithets and rocks at them. The newspaper owned by Mrs. Bates and her husband was destroyed because the white merchants withdrew their advertising to retaliate for her actions on behalf of the students.

Hope, rage, and loss
Brown engendered great hope and possibilities for Southern blacks but evoked rage and hostility among whites. The campaign to desegregate Southern schools took place one battle at a time, from town to town and county to county. In each Southern community, there was a struggle to desegregate the schools at an enormous cost for African Americans. Blacks experienced both hope and loss with the Brown decision. Many African Americans were damaged, physically and psychologically, when they first entered all-white southern schools. Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock nine, wrote, “I had long dreamed of entering Central High. I could not have imagined what that privilege could cost me.” Many black teachers who took active roles to desegregate schools or joined the NAACP lost their jobs. Other black teachers lost their jobs when schools were desegregated and white teachers were chosen to replace them. Rather than desegregate its schools, the school board in Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public Academy, a private school. There were no schools for black children in Prince Edward County between 1959 and 1964. There was another kind of loss experienced when desegregation took place in the South. The black school, like the black church, was an important source of ethnic pride and a center of important activities in black communities. Many of these schools, despite meager physical resources, had dedicated teachers who provided nurturing and positive educational environments for black students who might have not experienced educational success without them. My own teachers—such as Mrs. Sadie Mae Jones, Mrs. Mary Wilson, Mrs. Verna Mae Clay, and Miss Curry—epitomized caring and were committed Southern black teachers. Teachers were important and respected people within the black community. The loss of black schools left a tremendous void in African American communities throughout the South.

Assessing Brown
W.E.B. DuBois said “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Brown, and the events that preceded and followed it, are manifestations of both the problems and the hope for improving race relations in America. Martin Luther King said, “[t]he American people are infected with racism–that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals–that is the hope” Brown was an expression of those aspects of American civic culture that articulate democratic values such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. By ruling that de jure segregation was illegal because it damaged the hearts and minds of black students, the Supreme Court gave credence to the values stated in the nation’s founding documents and consequently gave blacks hope. There has always been, and there remains, a wide gap between America’s democratic ideals and its practice. Although the spirit of Brown reflected the democratic values in the nation’s founding documents, the efforts that were made to implement it and the white rage that it evoked were deeply American. Even the ruling itself reflected the ambivalence of the court. Chief Justice Warren had a difficult time getting the court to make a unanimous decision on Brown. Rather than setting a definite timetable for Southern schools to desegregate, the court set forth the ambiguous phase, “with all deliberate speed,” which gave Southern school districts the license to stall and procrastinate. The rage that Brown evoked among white Southern lawmakers in Congress and among their white constituencies was also deeply American. Racial progress in the United States throughout its history has always been attained through struggle. As Frederick Douglass stated in 1857:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one; and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be struggle.

It took struggles to end slavery and lynching. It was through struggle that blacks obtained access to public schools. Through the historical struggles to improve race relations in America, both blacks and whites have been changed, and we have come closer to the dream of attaining a nation with liberty and justice for all. For all of its shortcomings, and there were many both in the decision and its consequences, Brown brought the United States closer to its ideals. In declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” the Supreme Court enabled blacks in tightly segregated communities such as Aubrey and Marianna to challenge a system of institutionalized racism that had been entrenched since the post-Reconstruction period. Echoes of Brown finally reached Marianna years after 1960, the year that I graduated from high school and left the South to go to college in Chicago, Illinois. The white rage that was unleashed when blacks demanded an end to the entrenched system of segregation nearly destroyed the town. However, Marianna was reborn. When I visited Marianna in 1998 to give the keynote address at my high school reunion, it had a black mayor, but the schools were segregated. Most whites had fled to the suburbs or sent their children to private schools that were established to escape desegregated schools.

Battles to desegregate schools similar to those that took place in Southern cities occurred in Northern cities such as Boston (Massachusetts), Chicago, Detroit (Michigan), and New York years later in the 1960s. The silence, loss, rage, and hope that Brown evoked still simmer, in black and white communities throughout the United States. Schools throughout the nation are now resegregated. Blacks and whites often remain silent to maintain the peace. Blacks feel that much of their culture has been lost and eradicated from the schools in their communities. There is white rage about Affirmative Action and massive immigration and black rage about their plight in America. Brown gave us hope that America might one day overcome its deep and entrenched racial legacy and indicated how difficult this journey was and still is.