How Brown v. Board of Education changed—and didn't change—American education

Monday, April 28, 2014

Two milestones in the history of American education are converging this spring. The second is reshaping the legacy of the first.

The first landmark moment will arrive May 17, with the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down "separate but equal" segregation in public education. The second watershed will follow in June, with the completion of what is likely to be the last school year ever in which a majority of America's K-12 public-school students are white.

That demographic transformation is both reinvigorating and reframing Brown's fundamental goal of ensuring educational opportunity for all Americans. The unanimous 1954 Brown decision was a genuine hinge in American history. Although its mandate to dismantle segregated public schools initially faced "massive resistance" across the South, the ruling provided irresistible moral authority to the drive for legal equality that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts a decade later.

Coming nearly 60 years after the Supreme Court had upheld segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren's ringing opinion in Brown was the belated midcourse correction that began America's transformation into a truly multiracial world nation.

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