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Brown v. Board Discussed at Forum
by Andrew Davis
2005-06-01

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The impact of the seminal civil-rights case Brown v. Board of Education a half-century after its decision was the subject of a forum held at Harold Washington Library on May 14.

The discussion, entitled 'Our Echoing Demands: The Legacies of Brown v. Board Today,' featured a panel that talked about how the case has affected everything from contemporary academic policies to the formation of gay-rights organizations. Panelists included Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, an English and women's studies professor at Spelman College in Atlanta; and Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. Barbara Ransby, an associate professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, served as moderator.

Brown v. Board of Education, which was initially argued on Dec. 9, 1952 and decided on May 17, 1954, held that segregating white and Black schoolchildren solely on the basis of race violated the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This 'separate but unequal' doctrine overturned the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which put forth the concept of 'separate but equal.'

Orfield spoke about several issues, including the challenges of continuing the civil-rights movement today and the reason the Brown case is extraordinary. He offered that the Brown decision helped stimulate the government to 'end the apartheid of the South' ˆ but Orfield added that things 'seem to be going backwards fast.' In making his point, Orfield said that the judicial system was important for social progress although other elements are needed to facilitate change, such as social groups. He also talked about how there seems to be a regression that has taken place over the past 15 years, commenting in particular on the conservatism of entities such as the Supreme Court and the increasing segregation taking place in today's schools.

Davidson talked about how Brown helped foment the LGBT -rights movement. He discussed how the forum's subtitle was accurate because of his feeling that the LGBT-rights battle is not the same as the fight that African-Americans have engaged in; for example, he said, gays did not have to deal with slavery or Jim Crow laws. ( Therefore, the LGBT-rights movement has connections, or 'echoes,' of the Blacks' movement. ) Davidson did say that gays and lesbians owe a lot to figures such as Thurgood Marshall and to organizations such as the NAACP, 'which inspired [ groups ] such as Lambda Legal to exist.' Seconding a point Orfield made, Davidson added that the Brown ruling 'was an important acknowledgment that the law and social reality can change and are not frozen in time.' Davidson also felt that Brown helped reveal 'the incredible importance of changing environments for our future generations.' He also maintained that when an institution pushes forth a 'separate but equal' doctrine, it only reinforces the idea that groups are tagged 'with a badge of inequality that the Constitution should not tolerate.' As an example, Davidson pointed to the fact that gays and lesbians are unable to marry in 49 states and his opinion that the problem cannot be solved by instituting civil unions instead. He also mentioned the coincidence of Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. In noting a link between the civil-rights battles of the Black and LGBT communities, Davidson said that 'all too often, justice delayed is justice denied.'

Guy-Sheftall focused on the influence the Brown case has had on the women's movement, although she started by acknowledging the importance of the works of liberals and progressives. She stated that 'the women's movement is indebted to this historic event in history' ˆ but she added that a lot of women's-rights advocates 'have not come to terms with this fact.' She presented a brief historical civil-rights timeline; among other things, she talked about the link between two prominent 19th-century social aims: ending slavery and establishing women's suffrage rights. In doing so, Guy-Sheftall underscored the constant link that existed between the fights for gender and racial equality. In talking about Brown's impact, she mentioned milestones such as the Equal Pay Act and Roe v. Wade. The outspoken professor also entertained and educated the audience with several well-placed barbs. At one point during the forum, she said that 'diversity doesn't mean equity. Look at the Bush Cabinet; it's the most diverse Cabinet we've ever had.'

The panelists' comments were followed by an interactive question-and-answer session with the audience. One audience member brought up the issue that many Blacks feel that gays and lesbians are simply borrowing their rhetoric. Davidson responded that, among others, the media has fueled the lack of connection that African-Americans have with the LGBT community. 'The media continues to show the LGBT community as white and African-Americans as straight. We need to show that there are LGBT African-Americans,' he said.

The forum was presented by The Illinois Humanities Council ( IHC ) , The Public Square at the IHC, the Harold Washington Library Center, and Lambda Legal.


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