Law professors reflect on Brown v. Board

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February 27, 2009

4:47 PM

Members of the College of William and Mary Law School faculty met Thursday to discuss their racial desegregation experiences at a forum commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The decision, passed in 1954, overturned the previous Plessy v. Ferguson case, declaring separate-but-equal public schools to be unconstitutional.

University of Virginia law professor Mildred Wigfall Robinson led the forum to promote “Law Touched Our Hearts,” a collaborative book that she co-wrote with fellow U.Va. law professor Richard J. Bonnie, who was not present for the forum. The book was a project intended to unite the racial and geographic desegregation experiences of law professors throughout the country. Five thousand surveys were distributed, and various responses and 40 essays were merged to create their book.

“I identified Brown as a major influence in our lives,” Robinson said, “[The contributors] were all in either elementary or secondary school when Brown v. Board of Education was passed.”

The William and Mary Law School had the largest number of responses to the survey, with five faculty member experiences presented in the book. Four of those law professors shared their own personal essays, highlighting their own unique stories.

“I was raised in a racist household,” College law professor Linda Malone said. “My father told me that African-Americans had short foreheads because … they were less intelligent … and my parents used the n-word.”

Malone, who was raised in Tennessee, attended an integrated high school before she was accepted into a private girl’s school.

“The entrance exam and fees … were clearly designed to keep out anyone who was not Caucasian,” Malone said.

Despite her upbringing, Malone decided for herself that racism was inappropriate. She attributed some of this decision to Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“It was a revelation for me,” Malone said. “I was Huck Finn. I had been raised in a very racist way and I eventually realized it was wrong.”

Law professor Larry Palmer also discussed his attitude about Twain’s book.

“It said to me, ‘racism was wrong…. You’re going to face it in this world, but it’s wrong,’” said Palmer, who is black and was raised in St. Louis, Mo. and was 10 years old when the landmark case was decided. “Desegregation of schools was something in the air, something to be expected.”

He shared the story of integration into a white school and being taught in a predominantly black classroom, taught by a black teacher. Despite having a doctorate, Douglas’ teacher taught at the elementary school because of the limited number of opportunities available.

“Heroes of this generation were people who looked racism in the face and kept going,” Douglas said. “I got that education because [my teacher] didn’t have those opportunities … and I live with that.”

Law professor Dave Douglas, who is Caucasian, was raised in Charlotte, N.C. and described the integration process as “rough” during the beginning stages.

“The transition was not easy … It was a disruptive three or four years,” Douglas said. “Overall, Charlotte had a positive experience with desegregation compared to the rest of the United States.”

Douglas, who was slashed with a razorblade during a scuffle at school, decided to remain at his integrated public school due to his parent’s firm belief in a public school education.

Law professor Paul Marcus went to school in Los Angeles and attended what he described as a fairly integrated high school.

“Segregation was never really legal, but there was de facto segregation,” Marcus said. He described much of his segregation experiences as being due to economic differences rather than race.

Forum members also discussed the recent resegregation trend seen throughout public schools around the U.S. as a result of racially homogenous neighborhoods and recent Supreme Court actions. In 2007, the Supreme Court decided that Seattle and Louisville, Ky. could not take steps to actively integrate public schools of different races together.

Overall, members agreed upon the importance of a well-structured educational system to help maintain racial integration throughout the country.

“I think education served as a common denominator for the United States [for racial integration],” Robinson said.

Malone said racial integration is still an issue today.

“These issues aren’t simple,” Malone said. “They never have been, they never will be.”

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