April 23, 2004

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court in its celebrated Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, Kan.) decision declared state-legislated racial segregation in public elementary and secondary schools unconstitutional, "we're heading back to where we came from," veteran civil rights activist Littleton Mitchell said.

Speaking on Apr. 23 at an all-day University of Delaware symposium to mark the anniversary, Mitchell, who represents Delaware on the national commission commemorating the event, said about half of the school districts in southern and border states directly affected by the decision were deemed integrated in 1990. The combination of residential patterns, recent backsliding by courts and transfers of white children to private schools has reduced that proportion to 30%.

Nearly a third of black children attend schools regarded as 'hypersegregated'; that is, having a 90% or larger proportion of black students, according to Juan Williams, a senior correspondent with National Public Radio and political analyst for Fox News. "Education is a commodity middle-class and upper-class parents purchase for their children. If you're poor and can't afford it, you're out of luck," he said.

They set the tone for the day as 20 speakers lauded progress toward racial equality since the Brown decision has handed down on May 17, 1954, but lamented the fact that no where near the expected results have been achieved. 

"My son doesn't live in the same world his grandfather lived in. Brown is one of the things that is the reason," said Robert Cottrol, a George Washington University law school professor.

"There are places still reserved for whites 50 years after Brown. Many of those places are schools," said Robert Hayman, who teaches law at Widener University.

The role Delaware played in setting the stage for the landmark decision was highlighted throughout the day. Suits brought by parents in the Claymont and Hockessin districts led to one of the five cases the high court consolidated. The Delaware case was the only one in which the decision -- by Chancellor Collins Seitz in Court of Chancery and upheld by the state Supreme Court -- was upheld.

Jack Greenberg, now a professor in Columbia University's law school, who had joined Wilmington lawyer Louis Redding in successfully arguing the suit before Seitz and later before the U.S. Supreme Court, noted an even more substantive contribution. Basing his reasoning on Redding's argument, Seitz's opinion called into question the constitutional validity of the 'separate but equal' doctrine which had prevailed since the late 1800s. "There is no doubt that [Seitz's position] had an important impact." Greenberg said during his talk.

Unlike the highest court's ruling, the Delaware decision in an earlier case involving the University of Delaware, called for immediate, not eventual, compliance. As a result, Greenberg said, the university was the first formerly segregated institutions to integrate at the undergraduate level.

Collins Seitz Jr. said his late father made it a practice to couch his decisions and rulings in terns that had immediate application. "He didn't order that blacks be admitted [to the university]; instead he enjoined using their race not be a criterion for determining [their] admission," he said.

Greenberg pointed out that Seitz's decisions exposed him to potential political and possible physical harm. The university decision came at a time when the young jurist, then a vice chancellor,

was expected to be appointed chancellor. That gubernatorial appointment required state Senate confirmation, a process rendered difficult by a decision to which many Delawarean, including senators, objected.

The threat of being the victim of physical violence was very real to Orlando Camp, one of 11 black students

Jack Greenberg, who, who with the late Louis Redding, successfully argued Delaware's public school desegregation cases, talks with Stuart Young (at the left in the left photo), son of the then state attorney general who defended the suit, and Collins Seitz Jr., (right in the other photo) son of the judge who heard the case and handed down the only ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

admitted to Milford High School in September, 1954, as a 15-year-old sophomore. "There were 687 [white students] in the senior high school [and] 11 blacks were told in August that we were going to be attending for the first time," he recalled.

"The first few days went very smoothly. ... Then all hell broke loose," he said. A rumor that a black boy was going to invite a white girl to be his date at a dance swept the town and crowds growing in size assembled daily in front of the school. "I thought this (going to school) was not going to be an easy situation," he said.

It wasn't. A demagogue by the name of Bryant Bowles showed up, stirred up the crowd to a point where, even though state police were called in, the school board backed down, removed the students from the school and ordered them to attend Jason High, the 'colored' school in Georgetown. For Camp, that meant an hour-and-a-half bus ride instead of a four-block walk. He experienced integrated education for just 24 days.

Ruth Ann Minner then was a younger schoolgirl, also a resident of Milford. She referred to it as a time of fear. But, the governor said, "Delaware had people of courage, who would be heard and [eventually] make the change." She lauded the courage of those people -- Redding in particular -- and their willingness to work through the judicial system to accomplish their goals.

"They had faith in God that He would show the way," she said. "They walked to the door of power. They knocked and the door opened."

The late Albert Young, than attorney general, also faced personal danger when he offered to escort the black youngsters through the protesting crowd into the Milford school, his son, Allen, said. His position required the senior Young to defend the state Board of Education against the desegregation suit but, when the Supreme Court ruled, he declined to join his counterparts in other affected states in "any meeting dealing with anything other than enforcing the decision," Allen Young said.

Redding was, in some ways, an unlikely agent of that change, said Annette Woolard-Provine, who has published a biography of the lawyer and his family. An urbane man, he yielded to his father's wishes "and stayed in Wilmington -- a town he hated -- in segregated Delaware" instead of realizing his ambition to practice law in socially and professionally cosmopolitan New York or a New England city, she said. "He sacrificed most of his desires for the common good."

Redding was the first black man admitted to practice law in Delaware. Between 1929 and 1956 he was the only black lawyer in the state.

The most telling anecdote concerns how he heard the news of the Brown decision while driving alone to New York. Overcome by emotion he stopped his car and whispered a few congratulatory words to himself. "Then he put it back in gear and went on with his work," she said.

U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, the longest-serving member of the Judiciary Committee and its former chairman, told the symposium that the nation "is at a turning point in constitutional history." He said the Supreme Court is "just one vote away" from having the five votes necessary to change the direction which has prevailed for the half century since the justices decided Brown unanimously.

"There will be at least one and maybe as many as four [vacancies on the bench] in the next four-and-a-half years," he said, adding that "it will make a difference whether [the appointment] is made by one [presidential] nominee or the other." Biden, a Democrat, supports John Kerry to succeed President George Bush.

Jeffrey Raffel, a U. of Del. urban affairs professor, said a significant element in determining what happens in the near future comes down to whether African-American parents "accept a greater amount of [school] segregation [in exchange for] more opportunity for their children." The charter school movement is attractive to them -- both in Delaware and around the nation -- because it offers the prospect of "being better than what the community has now" in terms of educational achievement although research indicates that charter schools, in that respect, are not very different from conventional public schools, he said.

Norman Lockman, a News Journal editor and columnist, said there is considerable "in-school segregation" in Delaware. "You still find advanced classes that are predominantly white and special education classes that are predominantly black and in some cases all-black," he said.

U. of Del. provost Daniel Rich told the seminar that the university is a vivid example of what has happened in the 50 years since Brown came down. "The ruling was a turning point for America," he said. "We were forced to change [and now] diversity is an institutional priority.

Minner said she will not be satisfied that the ruling achieved its full promise "until we can see the [student test] scores that show race doesn't matter."

2004. All rights reserved.

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