The Legacy of Brown: We Must Not be Bought

Not long ago, I stood with my oldest son at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in front of a photo that contrasted a segregated school for African Americans in South Carolina (one-room schoolhouse with sagging shingles and missing boards) with a rather opulent school (large brick building) for white students.

The “unequal” part was obvious, and even more glaring than the “separate”.

Looking at those pictures, I remembered a section of The Race Beat, a book I read recently about journalists who covered the civil rights movement, that described the efforts of some segregationists in both the North and South who were eager to spend more on schools for children of color, especially in the lead-up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Because they were willing to pay a lot to maintain the status quo.

That’s how much maintaining an oppressive system was worth.

Holding hands with my son, who started Kindergarten in public school this year, I was thinking about those brave parents, the ones whose names are on the collection of lawsuits that, together, became known as Brown v. Board. And wondering whether they were ever tempted, as I would have been, if my child had been in that rickety schoolbuilding, to take the money.

Even knowing what it cost.

Obviously, our entire country has benefitted tremendously from their refusal to be bought. They understood that separate could never be equal, and they knew that their little boys and girls deserved integrated schools and the access to power and full participation that only integration can bring, rather than a spiffed-up segregated school, with better-paid teachers and textbooks in the classrooms.

They were right, and they were patient in that impatient about injustice but amazingly able to wait for real solutions way, and their intransigence was a witness that sparked the greatest movement for social equality our country has ever seen.

And the next thing I thought, as my son’s attention moved on to the next part of the exhibit, was…

I hope we can be as brave. And as tough. And as smart.

Times are tough, these days, for social service nonprofit organizations and for many of those we serve. We’re perennially out of money, and in begging-mode, and we are confronting serious challenges in a political context that’s often impervious to our sufferings.

That’s a dangerous combination, because it can breed a desperation that can push us to accept compromises that we know take us backwards, concessions that violate our most honored principles.

I see it when private organizations join together to pay for public services that the state has abandoned–we’re reaching for a Band-Aid because the need is so urgent, but we’re excusing public abdication of responsibilities core to our social contract.

I see it when organizations scramble to align themselves with even objectionable programming opportunities (“marriage promotion“, anyone?), because they’re trying to find ways to stay afloat, and to curry favor with government officials.

I even see it in myself, when I’m reluctant to take an Administration on on one front because we’re still negotiating on another–no, it’s not money at stake, but something arguably more valuable–my integrity.

I’m sure Linda Brown’s parents wanted her to go to a nice school. They may have even been approached with offers of upgrades, if they would just “be quiet”.

We need to all be thankful that they did not.

And we must, in the words of the song to which my 3 oldest kids and I danced in the gallery of the Brown site, in what used to be a school only for children with a certain color skin, we must not be moved.

Or bought.

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