Revisiting Brown: Did It Make a Difference?

WED, MAY 12, 2004 (1:46:28)

A distinguished panel discusses the impact of Brown vs. the Board of Education, 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision. Moderated by Carmen Fields, director of media relations, KeySpan Energy New England, the panel includes Margaret A. Burnham, associate professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law; Nancy Gertner, US district court judge for the District of Massachusetts; Jonathan Kozol, author and activist; Charles Ogletree Jr., Jesse Climenko professor of law at Harvard Law School; Robert V. Ward Jr., dean of the Southern New England School of Law; and Dianne Wilkerson, state senator of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It was particularly fitting that the Museum commemorate the landmark Brown decision given the historic significance of its site, the Abiel Smith School, which was a the center of the first school desegregation case filed in the United States, Roberts v. the City of Boston (1850). The Abiel Smith School, located at 46 Joy Street on Beacon Hill, Boston and opened in 1835, was the first public school in the country to be erected specifically as a segregated school for African American primary and secondary school-aged children. Prompted by a gift from white philanthropist Abiel Smith, the City of Boston opened the Smith School on Beacon Hill. However, the building lacked the adequate space and equipment for a quality education. Benjamin Franklin Roberts, a black printer, sued the city after his 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, had been denied admission to the primary school closest to her home in the West End and was told to go to the Smith School, more than a mile away. In 1850, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided against Roberts stating that the Boston School Committee had fulfilled its obligation to provide a “separate but equal” educational program. Forty-six years later, the US Supreme Court relied principally upon this rationale in establishing the “separate but equal doctrine”, announced in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896). This doctrine was unanimously reversed 58 years later by the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

+ BIO: Diane Wilkerson

In November 2002 when the Democratic National Party Chair announced Boston as the site for the 2004 National Convention, the efforts of four Massachusetts politicians were highlighted: the two U.S. Senators for Massachusetts, the Mayor of Boston and State Senator Dianne Wilkerson who served on the DNCs Host Committee. Wilkerson is currently serving her seventh term in the Massachusetts Senate. Wilkerson gained a reputation early on for tackling the most difficult social, economic and political issues. She continues to defy expectations while accumulating one of the most prolific records of legislative and non-legislative accomplishments. Senator Wilkerson holds a B.S. in Public Administration from American International College and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. In 1991, she became the first African American female to obtain a partnership in a major Boston law firm. In 1993, she was sworn in as the first African American female to serve in the Massachusetts Senate and is currently the highest-ranking Black elected official in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

+ BIO: Margaret Burnham

Professor Burnham began her career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund litigating school desegregation cases. She has served as a Boston municipal court judge and a partner in a Boston civil rights firm with an international human rights practice. Her areas of interest are civil and human rights, comparative constitutional rights, and international criminal law. Professor Burnham directs the Northeastern University Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project , which engages students in legal matters relating to the 1960s US civil rights movement.

+ BIO: Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

Charles Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at the law school. He is the author of the critically acclaimed All Deliberate Speed, and has received numerous awards and honors, including being named one of the 100+ Most Influential Black Americans by Ebony Magazine. In the immediate aftermath of the Crowley-Gates incident, Ogletree acted not only as counsel to Professor Gates but continues to act as advisor on police behavior to both Harvard University and the City of Cambridge. He was a senior advisor to President Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.

+ BIO: Jonathan Kozol

In 1964 Jonathan Kozol began work as a teacher in low-income, predominately black Roxbury, first in a freedom school and later in a public elementary school. He grew up in Newton, was educated at Harvard and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. His first published nonfiction, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967) winner of the National Book Award, drew upon his experiences as a fourth-grade teacher. The practice of immersing himself in the lives of his subjects became the pattern for his subsequent searing studies of the injustices a wealthy society visits upon its most vulnerable members. A commission to study the problem of adult literacy resulted in Illiterate American (1980). In Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988) Kozol examines the stunted lives of people deprived of the raw necessities. Savage Inequalities (1991) details the differences between schools in affluent neighborhoods and those attended by the children of the poor. In 1995 Kozol produced another study, this time based on first-hand experience among schoolchildren in the South Bronx: Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (2001) revisits the courageous and resilient children of the South Bronx.

+ BIO: Robert V. Ward Jr.

Robert V. Ward, a Boston educator and administrator, was recently named Dean of the Southern New England School of Law. Dean Ward replaces Dean David M. Prentiss, who filled the position on an interim basis until a permanent dean was found and now returns to his role as associate dean and member of the faculty. Dean Ward has served as professor of law at New England School of Law since 1982 and was the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Enrichment program, an academic achievement program designed to increase the number of people practicing minority law. He serves on the executive committee of the American Association of Law Schools Section on Academic Support Programs and is a member of the faculty of the American Academy for Judicial Education.

+ BIO: Carmen Fields

Carmen Fields has been a fixture in Bostons journalism community for over 25 years. Her experience includes both print and broadcast journalism; journalism education and media relations. For many Boston-area residents, Carmens comments on the news of the day, in her Boston Globe column and as a television reporter and anchor for Channels 7 and 4 and Channel 2s Ten OClock News with Christopher Lydon were part of daily life. A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Carmen earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Lincoln University in Missouri and a Master of Science degree in broadcast journalism from Boston University. She was a part of the Boston Globe team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Bostons school desegregation. After work at the Boston Globe as a reporter, assistant city editor and later as a columnist, Fields became a television journalist. She was also an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Museum of African American History
Civil Rights Movement Series