Race and Education: The 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

by Jack Ludwig

Gains have been substantial; improvement still needed

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- As the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision on racial segregation in public schools approaches, recent Gallup polling finds that the vast majority of Americans (90%) acknowledge that educational opportunities for black children have gotten better since 1954. But other results indicate that equality in education remains elusive. According to the new survey, a majority of adults (59%) think that black children in the United States do have educational opportunities equal to those of white children, but nearly 4 in 10 (38%) say that they do not. Nearly one-third of those who believe that black children do not have equal educational options say that the situation is due to discrimination (31%) rather than some other reason (68%).

Brown v. Board of Education

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared on May 17, 1954, that racially separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and in violation of "the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment." At that time, 17 southern states and the District of Columbia had mandatory racial segregation in their public schools, and several additional states left the issue to the discretion of individual school districts. In the early 1950s, challenges to the legality of segregated schools filtered up to the Supreme Court from South Carolina, Kansas, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. These were consolidated into a single case that became known as Brown v. Board of Education, named after Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in the Kansas case. Brown brought the suit against the Topeka Board of Education on behalf of his seven-year-old daughter Linda, who was forced to travel nearly one and a half hours to school, along a dangerous route to reach her segregated school every day, while her white friends attended a school only seven blocks from her home.

In a unanimous decision, destined to change the face of race relations in the United States and to kindle the passions and hopes of a nascent civil rights movement, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to create separate schools for children based on their race. Brown and the other plaintiffs were represented by Thurgood Marshall, who -- nominated by former President Lyndon Johnson -- would later become the first black justice appointed to the Supreme Court.

At the time of the decision, a Gallup Poll found that Americans were closely divided on the Supreme Court decision. Within days of the announcement, Gallup asked the following question of a national sample of adults:

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that racial segregation in the public schools is illegal. This means that all children, no matter what their race, must be allowed to go to the same schools. Do you approve or disapprove of this decision?

A bare majority (54%) approved of the ruling, while a large minority of 41% disapproved. Now, 50 years later, the results of a new Gallup Poll on Race and Education suggest that while important and unmistakable progress has been made, the nation still has a significant distance to travel. As noted, while 90% recognize improvements in education for black children since 1954, nearly 4 in 10 (38%) believe that educational opportunities remain unequal.

Results by Race

Opinions on educational opportunities diverge sharply along racial lines: two-thirds of blacks (68%) hold the belief that black children do not have education parity with white children, compared with only one-third of whites (34%) taking this position. And while large majorities of both blacks and whites feel that progress has been made in educational equality over the past 50 years, this belief is significantly more prevalent among whites (92%) than it is for blacks (77%).

Equal Educational Opportunities for
Black Children in the United States?
January-March 2004
Educational Opportunities for
Black Children Today Compared to 50 Years Ago
January-March 2004

Americans were asked what would be the most important way to improve educational opportunities for black children in the United States today. In open-ended probing, the most widely held suggestions involved maintaining equality of standards, having families take more responsibility, providing more funding, and better teachers. Blacks are somewhat more likely than whites to offer suggestions, but among those of either race who do, the results are broadly similar. Nevertheless, blacks are less likely than whites to suggest the need for greater family responsibility and more likely than whites to suggest the need for better teachers.

 

Most Important Way to Improve Educational Opportunities for
Black Children in the U.S. Today


National Adults

Whites

Blacks

%

%

%

Have the same standards/equal opportunity

11

10

12

More family responsibility

10

11

5

Better funding/financing in general

7

7

9

Better teachers

7

6

12

Greater encouragement to attend school

5

5

7

Improve educational system overall

4

4

5

Better schools/more schools

4

4

5

Improve economic conditions

4

4

4

Focus on funding the inner city schools

4

4

2

Less discrimination/racism

4

4

4

Allow a voucher system

3

3

1

More help with scholarships/grants

2

2

3

Better discipline

2

2

2

More integration between poor and wealthy

1

1

2

Early childhood intervention/development

1

1

2

Smaller classrooms

1

1

1

More help with war on drugs/crime in areas

1

1

*

End affirmative action

*

*

1

Make school more affordable

*

*

1

Other

4

3

6

No opinion

25

27

16

* Less than 0.5%

Thurgood Marshall

Marshall, whose tireless efforts to improve civil rights indelibly marked the 1950s and 1960s, won his most important ruling in Brown v. Board of Education before his appointment to the Supreme Court. How do Americans remember him? When we asked Americans about their opinion of him, the results show that blacks are much more likely to express an opinion than whites are: 63% of white Americans either acknowledged that they had not heard of him or claimed to have no opinion, compared with 40% of black Americans. Among Americans who express opinions, 31% view him favorably, and that figure rises to 54% among blacks. Marshall's central role in the Brown v. Board of Education case, and his leading role in a variety of other cases that helped to break the color line in housing, transportation, and voting are testament to his energy in the cause of civil rights and racial equality. And even if memory of specific events and actors fades inevitably with time, we live in a world that has been fundamentally changed by his vision and resolve.

Opinion of Former Supreme Court Justice
Thurgood Marshall
January-March 2004

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 3,017 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted in multiple Gallup Polls in January, February, and March 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points. For results based on the sample of 2,595 whites, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points. For results based on the sample of 219 blacks, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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