Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The broken promise of Brown

In the landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court boldly acknowledged the inherent inequality of the separate-but-equal doctrine in the field of education.

Six decades later, our country again faces segregated schools separated by race, class and measurable inequities. Three Carolina scholars offer insight into Brown’s unfulfilled promise of educational equality.


brown_dorosin_mugMARK DOROSIN

To integrate with “all deliberate speed.”

The line is forever linked with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, but it didn’t come until a year later, in 1955, with a case that came to be known as “Brown II,” said Mark Dorosin, the managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights who teaches civil rights and political science at Carolina’s School of Law.

As for the speed, well, that did not come at all.

“There were a few high-profile cases like Little Rock, Arkansas, but the South settled into this entrenched resistance to the idea of integrating,” Dorosin said. “Ten years after Brown, less than 2 percent of African-American students were attending white schools.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 created legal tools that allowed the federal government to push forward with desegregation, Dorosin said, but the court didn’t re-engage until 1968, with Green v. County School Board of New Kent County in Virginia. In Green, the Supreme Court established six key benchmarks lower courts used to measure whether a school district was complying with desegregation orders.

It was followed three years later by Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the case in which the Supreme Court “opened up the next remedial door” to achieve integrated schools through busing.

For a time, it worked, and the Mecklenburg school system became a national model for how integration could work. But in the ensuing decades, many of those legal gains have been reversed, Dorosin said, including the use of busing to achieve racial balance in schools.

The low point may have come in 2007 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, also known as the “PICS” case. At issue in the case were voluntary desegregation efforts in school districts in Seattle, Washington, and Louisville, Kentucky, and whether the systems could use racial classifications to achieve diversity.

The court was divided, Dorosin said, but Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion likened the voluntary plans to the segregation that had existed before Brown and suggested that any assignment plan based on race is offensive constitutionally – even if the goal was to join races together instead of keeping them apart.

“It is wonderful that we are acknowledging the anniversary of this landmark decision in Brown, but things are not wonderful. As an advocate working on issues related to school integration, it would be more useful to be talking about the 118th anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson.

“We are back to this notion that it doesn’t matter what the schools look like demographically as long as they are all getting equal resources,” Dorosin said. “Well, that is the original ‘separate but equal’ argument.

“That is what is so tragic about where we are now.”

Read more about Dorosin’s advocacy work.


brown_thompson_450DANA THOMPSON DORSEY

Brown happened before Dana Thompson Dorsey was born, but she has come to believe it was conceived with a hidden, and ultimately fatal, flaw.

The flaw, she said, was that Brown was never intended to permanently integrate schools, but merely to desegregate them for a little while.

“Real integration means we will unify and stay that way,” Thompson Dorsey said. “We will live together. We will work together. We will school together. And that’s how it should and would always be.”

It did not turn out that way, said Thompson Dorsey, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy in Carolina’s School of Education.

“Students today are more racially segregated today than they were in the late 1960s prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country,” Thompson Dorsey said.

School segregation, in the era of Brown, was defined as the intentional and state-sponsored isolation of students. Today, these old policies are a thing of the past, but segregation is not, she said.

Last year, her article in “Education and Urban Society” titled “Segregation 2.0: The New Generation of School Segregation in the 21st Century” documented many factors – from residential segregation patterns to court decisions that ended federal oversight of segregated districts – that have led to the resegregation of schools.

Past civil rights leaders such as Thurgood Marshall led a grassroots effort that eventually led to the Brown case reaching the Supreme Court for legal remedy.

That same kind of grassroots movement is needed again, she said, with parents leading the charge.

“So often we feel we are in it alone, and we don’t say anything and we don’t do anything,” Thompson Dorsey said. “We have to educate parents, and it has to be on a regular basis, when parents are not just learning about what their kids are learning in the school, but what the political process is and where their voice fits.

“Their voice is a huge piece that is missing from this puzzle.”

Read Thompson Dorsey’s article on resegregation.


Jim Johnson outside Union Independent School in Durham, NC.JIM JOHNSON

Farmville Central High School in rural Pitt County did not fully integrate until the fall of 1971 – at the start of Jim Johnson’s senior year.

“Farmville literally had a railroad that cut through the center of town,” Johnson said. “And back then, ‘across the tracks’ meant ‘across the tracks.’”

The school fused those two sides together, Johnson said. Black with white. Ruling class with working class. Sitting side by side, for the first time, as equals.

“All of a sudden, I was sitting beside a guy in the class who is the son of a family my mother used to work for,” Johnson said. “We became great friends.”

One of the things Johnson learned quickly was that there were some white people who were glad he was there – and some who weren’t.

He played a football game while members of the KKK marched outside, “threatening to do something bad to us if we beat them,” Johnson said. But the only beating that night would happen on the football field, Johnson said. His team won.

Then, there were people like Don Dempsey, a civics teacher pursuing his Ph.D. at Carolina who took enough of an interest in Johnson and another of his black classmates to take them both to Chapel Hill. “He believed both of us should go to Carolina and did all he could to make us believe it, too,” Johnson said.

Years later, at the start of his mother’s funeral, Johnson would run into Dempsey again. “He whispered in my ear, ‘I wanted you to go to school at Carolina – I never thought you would end up teaching there.’”

Johnson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center, said he never would have dreamed that the grand experiment he was a part of would one day fizzle and die.

“We are more segregated today in our public schools than we were in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board of Education,” Johnson said. “If you view all this with a wide-angle lens, the new majority in America – black and brown kids – are between a rock and a hard place, through no fault of their own.”

The legal battles must continue to be fought, Johnson said. In the meantime, Johnson founded the Global Scholars Academy in downtown Durham in 2009, a K–8 charter school for children from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Even in an era of stark segregation, it is possible to build bridges to the mainstream and connect kids to the wider world both virtually and through support networks,” Johnson said. “This school is not a defense of the situation we are in. It is a reaction to it. It is about helping kids play the hand that has been dealt by helping them to succeed even against the odds.”

Learn more about Johnson’s story and the Global Scholars Academy.