WLW Brown v. Board of Education Commentary

The beauty of having a diverse workplace is in the stories and perspectives we are able to share with each other. On May 17, 2014 (a year from today) we will complete the 60th year after the Brown vs. BOE decision. We asked Wilton L. Wallace, Senior Research Associate to share some of his thoughts flowing from that decision. Mr. Wallace has witnessed many changes in the American psyche including Brown vs. BOE, the integration of the U.S. military, and now election of the first African American President, Barack H. Obama. Here’s what Wilton shared with us about what Brown vs. BOE meant to him. 

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Wilton L. Wallace, Senior Research Associate at Matlock Advertising and Public Relations

Today, we enter the 60th year of education under one of the most significant legal decisions of the 20th century–Brown. That decision has life and relevance much beyond the days the U.S. Supreme Court first etched the words that ruled, when using race to allocate educational resources… “separate but equal is inherently unequal…” Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483; Decided May 17, 1954. Regarding the status of African Americans and other people who have been discriminated against our country has struggled with establishing full human rights since the legal end of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). For too many years, America legally practiced segregation under Plessey V. Ferguson (16 U.S 537; 1896). That case stated that the equal treatment of former slaves and their descendants (guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) can be provided through public accommodations that are equal but physically separate. The Brown case changed that by seeking to dismantle the dual system of education that existed into the early 1950s, 1960s, and in some situations well beyond.

Enough of the legal background, my purpose here is not to discuss cases in a vacuum but rather to share my perspective of events, people, and places in my life from the time of Brown to the present. To relate to these views one should know a little more about me. I entered the first grade shortly after the Brown decision and was completing my degree at Harvard Law School when the nation celebrated the 20th anniversary of Brown. During most of those years, the practical effects of Brown were small. I attended an all-Black elementary, middle, and high school. Even after the Supreme Court spoke, not all school systems immediately acted to follow its ruling. Though this seems to contradict the purpose of the Brown decision, the nation was not standing still but rather it was evolving.  There were many forces and movements that helped make it possible for me to complete college at the historically White Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN and later Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA. Brown was an important catalyst to allow my progression from all Black to historically White educational institutions.

Children are born into families, communities, and the society as a whole. In my case, I was very fortunate. I was raised in a single parent home where my family gave me the most solid foundation that can be provided: LOVE. With my mother and grandmother as guides I gained self-esteem, confidence, passion for learning, determination, and strength. My community also helped to support me in developing those positive traits and with society in a transition I was able to move forward.

Change takes place slowly in our society. Abraham Lincoln alone could not “free” the slaves. The slaves, their descendants and many other citizens of good will had to labor daily to move towards freedom, just as we must continue to maintain and expand it.  The Supreme Court’s decision did not put me into a unified educational system and I had to be prepared if my entering a unified system was going to be successful.  There were many players in the transition of the Supreme Court’s idea of “separate, but equal,” but the primary group was the legal team of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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Arguing for the plaintiffs in the five cases were Robert Carter ’41 LL.M (Brown); Thurgood Marshall (Briggs v. Elliott); Spottswood Robinson (Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al.); George Hayes and Jim Nabrit (Spottswood Thomas Bolling et al. v. C. Melvin Sharpes, et al); and Louis L. Redding and Jack Greenberg Columbia ’48 (Francis B. Gebhart, et al. v. Ethel Louise Belston et al.)

 

In addition to the pushing from the Brown legal team, it was necessary for the Supreme Court to have the courage, wisdom, and strength to overturn a precedent that had stood for nearly 100 years at the time the case was argued. The court acted unanimously through the following men: Chief Justice, Earl Warren and Associate Justices, Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Sherman Minton.

Through my career development I was able to cross paths with several of the lawyers on the NAACP legal defense team for Brown vs. BOE.  I first met Justice Marshall at a National Bar Association meeting in the Bahamas in the late 1970s. During my time at Harvard Law School I came to know Spottswood Robinson (at that time a federal judge) and Jack Greenburg (continued with the Legal Defense Fund and taught part-time at the Harvard Law School). Because I realized the importance of Brown opening the door of opportunity to the “great equalizer,” education; I was honored to have the opportunity to personally thank each of the giants I met that were a part of the Brown team.

After I was appointed Assistant Attorney General (AAG) of the United States by President Reagan in 1983, I brought William T. Coleman and Justice Marshall together in the auditorium of the Justice Department. I was administered the oath of office by Justice Marshall, and Mr. Coleman attended as a special guest and mentored me over the course of the next several years. As AAG I served as a member of the DOJ Honors Program hiring committee where I made a working relationship and acquaintance with now Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. I served as AAG through 1986. Below, is a picture of me and my younger son, Wilton, II at a Department of Justice farewell event in 1986.

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Mr. Wallace with his son, Wilton, II at a Department of Justice farewell event in 1986.

Over the next year (the 60th year since the Brown decision) consider taking some time to read more about each of them. Or if you are more interested in current events than historical information, consider reading Marcia Coyle’s recent book “The Robert’s Court” which offers her insight into the work of the current Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts.

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