Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”
Attending segregated, underfunded schools in the Jim Crow South was a way of life in the 1950s-1960s. Having grown up in a family where education was a significant value, in my adult years I recognize that our schools, unequal as they were, gave us an education that served us well enough in college and in life. Yet, most of us didn’t know what we missed under Jim Crow education until we graduated and found ourselves in the company of people who had different kinds of experiences. Not to mention, in high school we were denied the right to fraternize with people who were of a different race.
We later came to know that status as “diversity,” a state of unlikeness or the inclusion of people who are different in many aspects of life. In our case, our different-ness meant what part of town we lived in, what faiths we belonged to, what kind of sports, foods or music we liked or how much money our parents earned. This future term “diversity” is one I would come to know very well in my career, as I became an award-winning champion for media diversity.
In 1954, when the US Supreme Court rendered the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a case in which the Court declared that state laws with separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, the decision legally tossed out state-sponsored segregation in public education. The court said “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The separate but unequal laws had stood for almost 60 years from a prior decision, the 1896 US Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as separate facilities for separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment, which reads “no State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.”
The 1954 decision meant, in effect, that students in segregated schools should have an equal shot at education, that our teachers, facilities, materials and post-secondary education in all public institutions should be equal. It meant that my education at Hodge Elementary, Beach Junior High and Beach High schools on Savannah’s west side, schools with 100 percent black students, teachers and staff, should be equal to, say, the education that students would receive at all-white schools throughout Georgia.
I was only four years old on May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court decision was handed down, so I can’t say what the reaction was at that time in the nation’s black community. What I do know is that nothing changed right away, likely because the decision did not address implementation. A year later, the Court’s second Brown decision ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” That was in 1955, the year I entered first grade.
“Deliberate speed” turned out to be a slow process. Public schools in Savannah didn’t begin to integrate until I was in high school, and because of the slowness of desegregation I never personally benefited from Brown v. Board of Education.