60 Years After Brown v. Board: The Future the Black Press Couldn’t See

This 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision is a time for reflection upon both the the increased opportunities for African-American students in a post-Brown world, and the continuing problems of racial inequality in education in the United States.

In 1954, the Black Press, understandably, reported the decision as a moment of incredible triumph.  The Chicago Defender newspaper also interpreted the decision from a vantage point of northern superiority.  Editors at the Chicago Defender discussed the case in the context of northern achievements of racial equality. As the nation awaited a ruling in the case, Chicago Defender columnist Albert Barnett reminded readers that districts not prejudices decided what schools Chicago children would attend, and that “If this Chicago situation prevailed in the South, there would be no need of Supreme Court action.” (CD, National Edition, January 30, 1954, p. 4)  For longtime Defender writer Enoch Waters, the lesson that Chicago offered a nation in turmoil in the wake of Brown was that “being all-white or all-Negro does not necessarily mean that a school is jim crow. It is not the physical complexion of the school that determines whether or not it is jim crow. It is, rather, whether all who wish to attend the school can do so if they qualify otherwise regardless of race.” (CD National Edition, July 17, 1954, p. 11) These statement contained powerful and politically useful critiques of Jim Crow racial segregation.

This southern shift of the fight against racial discrimination elided local concerns among African-American community leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, students, as well as some white fellow-travellers, about the continuing patterns of educational discrimination and inequality in northern cities like Chicago.  In 1949, school officials in Chicago undertook a large-scale redistricting project in response to a rapidly growing school-aged population (from 42,900 in 1942 to 67,000 in 1954).  While Chicago did not have an official policy of racial segregation in public schools, most schools were completely or largely segregated through a combination of carefully crafted residential boundaries, steering by school administrators, and pressure from local (white) parents.  Within this system, exclusively and predominantly African-American schools suffered disproportionately from overcrowding and large class size.

The problems facing African-American students in Chicago Public Schools were widely discussed in the pages of the Chicago Defender, but not in the period after the Brown victory.   Instead editors on the achievements of a school system that functioned successfully without racial segregation.  Reading 1954 editorials from the Chicago Defender in 2014 is bittersweet.  While the editors envisioned the hope, the promise, and the hard-won battle of Brown as part of a steady march toward racial equality in education, that vision would be challenged by powerful forces of white flight and residential resegregation in cities such as Chicago.