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Civil rights attorney: Legal action to ‘hollow out’ Brown v. Board moves at deliberate speed


Civil rights attorney: Legal action to ‘hollow out’ Brown v. Board moves at deliberate speed

Apr 19, 2024 | 6:59 pm ET
By Tim Carpenter
Civil rights attorney: Legal action to ‘hollow out’ Brown v. Board moves at deliberate speed
Sherrilyn Ifill, a professor at Howard Law School and former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, spoke about the promise and reality of the Brown v. Board of Education decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 declaring unconstitutional the nation's separate-but-equal education system. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — Former NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherilyn Ifill said the nation should celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court as overdue recognition of the necessity to end legal apartheid in the United States.

Ifill, speaking to a diverse audience Friday at the University of Kansas, warned the upcoming May 17 anniversary of the decision declaring racial segregation in public education to be unconstitutional would be celebrated during an era in which forces dedicated to derailing growth of multiracial democracy and citizenship were gaining ground.

She pointed to recent court decisions against race-informed college admissions and the advancement of legislative challenges in Kansas and other states to diversity, equity and inclusion programs on higher education campuses and within private businesses.

“Brown was not just about schools or even just about race,” she said. “Brown was critical to the uniquely American project of creating a healthy multiracial democracy … in which equality and justice are part of the defining national identity.”

Ifill, a distinguished professor at Howard University’s law school and selected to start a new center there focused on the 14th amendment, said the 1954 decision didn’t simply address subordination of Black children through legally sanctioned segregation in a country with a deep history of genocide and enslavement. An intellectually thoughtful person wouldn’t define a country with rigid laws compelling racial apartheid as a functioning democracy, she said.

The Supreme Court also spoke powerfully 70 years ago about the importance of education to development of citizenship and operation of a democracy, Ifill said.

“It’s one of the most powerful, unequivocal statements in Brown. And, for the life of me, I don’t know why we’re not saying that at this time,” she said. “The court went on to describe education as the most important function of state and local government. I don’t hear us saying that either.”

Ifill, who served as president and director of the NAACP legal defense fund from 2013 to 2022, said education didn’t guarantee a well-formed citizen. She said some the most anti-democratic and harmful attacks on equality under the Constitution were shaped by graduates of the nation’s finest schools and colleges.

Failure to fully implement the idea of Brown as a vehicle of education, citizenship and democracy placed the nation in peril given the U.S. Supreme Court’s “manifestly dangerous” opposition to Brown, she said.

“Those who have long been arrayed against it are feeling their strength and feeling that they can ultimately overcome this vision,” Ifill said.

The NAACP provided legal counsel to plaintiffs in the consolidated school segregation lawsuit that prompted the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown. The landmark ruling was the Legal Defense Fund’s most celebrated victory in a long battle for civil rights.

In the Brown decision, all nine justices voted to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine handed down in 1896 through the Supreme Court’s finding in Plessy v. Ferguson. In this earlier decision, justices held state-mandated segregation laws didn’t violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ifill said she was disturbed the Brown decision was being perverted by the U.S. Supreme Court to push back against race-influenced admissions. Such attacks, she said, repeated the canard that the Constitution was colorblind document.

“The project now is to hollow out Brown and to leave its husk so that it can be available for use of those forces that have always been arrayed against the promise of Brown,” Ifill said.

She spoke during a two-day conference sponsored by KU and the National Park Service on “Brown v Board at 70: Looking Back and Striving Forward.” On Saturday, participants were to have an opportunity to visit the Brown v. Board National Historical Park in Topeka.