Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Cheri Pierson Yecke: The vision of King and the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Posted on Sun, Jan. 18, 2004 Pioneer Press

As Minnesotans celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King this year, we also have an opportunity to recognize the 50th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education in the context of today's struggle to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

The 1954 Brown ruling overturned the 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the legal precedent for "separate but equal." But as history proved, separate was not equal. In Plessy v. Ferguson, shameful practices and traditions of the day were given precedence over higher promises of freedom and liberty as articulated in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ."

But even then, it took many more years for some people to accept, let alone implement, the tenets of the Brown decision. Two years after the ruling, 101 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter condemning the decision. A movement known as "massive resistance" began in the South. In some places, communities voted to shut down their public school systems rather than be forced to integrate.

But to our credit as Americans, many more people supported this decision immediately - and others came to support it over time. Dr. King provided leadership during this era, working to fulfill his vision of a free and just society.

Those who knew that there was a moral obligation to overcome segregation acted because, to be true to the ideals upon which this nation was founded, there is no other choice. They did not call it an unfunded mandate. They did not say, "We can wait and do this later" - they knew that the time had come in this great country to turn our backs on the doctrine of segregation, and to move forward to provide equal access to educational opportunities for all children.

Just as the Brown decision was a tool toward ending segregation 50 years ago, the No Child Left Behind Act is today's tool to close the achievement gap. For the first time ever, each public school in the country must inform its community about the student achievement of all - not some, but all - of its students. In schools across the nation, the light of accountability will shine into the darkest corners, places where children formerly were left to languish in frustration and despair, and where families have been left without hope.

Some might say that the law is unjust to schools, or that its costs outweigh its benefits. But instead of offering excuses, more than 100 minority leaders and educators last November looked past party designations, looked beyond politics and signed a joint letter supporting No Child Left Behind. In this letter, they wrote:

"No Child Left Behind . is a huge step forward in the movement toward full participation in American democracy. [but] just as we then didn't use insufficient funding as an excuse to maintain legally segregated schools . we must not use funding to escape our responsibilities now."

These leaders recognize their obligation to continue implementing Brown v. Board of Education. There was no time to waste then, and there is no time to waste now. Thurgood Marshall spoke to the court in the Brown case with these words: "There is no way you can repay lost school years."

These thoughts are echoed in the words of one of Minnesota's most famous native sons, Hubert Humphrey, who spoke as a statesman on the issue of civil rights nearly 60 years ago. In 1948, he declared his support for civil rights "because of my profound belief that we have a challenging task to do here - because good conscience (and) decent morality demands it." He added, "To those who say, my friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late!"

To reach our goals, we must not be afraid to identify and reward excellence, for in doing so we inspire others to reach these same heights. Conversely, we must not be afraid to identify and address persistent underperformance. Schools that are underperforming deserve assistance and support - but at the same time, as Marshall pointed out, we cannot wait indefinitely for improvements to occur.

As educational leaders in Minnesota, we need to move forward together along the road Dr. King has identified, knowing that while the pathway might be rocky and the journey sometimes challenging, our goal is a noble one and is larger than what happens in a single school or a single district. It involves a commitment to something bigger than ourselves.

Let our journey begin.

Yecke is commissioner of education for the state of Minnesota.