Julian Bond: Resistance, politics foiled promise of Brown v. Board of Education

The promise of Brown v. Board of Education has been broken over and over since the Supreme Court issued the decision 60 years ago, civil rights leader Julian Bond told an Indiana University audience Wednesday. But that doesn’t mean the ideals embodied in the decision were misguided.

The problem, Bond said, was that Brown’s mandate has rarely been fully supported. Only during a four-year period – from 1964 to 1968 – did both the Supreme Court and the executive branch of the U.S. government truly back the decision’s call for racially integrated schools.

Julian Bond

Julian Bond speaks at the Maurer School of Law.

“Had it been allowed to work, Brown could have elevated education and much more for millions of Southern black children,” he said.

And the decision did accomplish much, he said. It “gave license to a nonviolent army” of activists who challenged segregation in public facilities, transportation and other areas.

Bond, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, former president of the NAACP and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, gave the annual Harris Lecture on Wednesday at the IU Maurer School of Law in Bloomington. Today at 1:30 p.m., he will help launch the IU School of Education’s Inspire Living-Learning Center at Rose Residence Hall. At 7 p.m., he will introduce segments of the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” at IU Cinema.

Bond’s connection to Brown v. Board of Education was personal. His grandfather, born a slave, graduated from Berea College in Kentucky and became a clergyman. His father, a college professor, contributed research to the Brown legal case. And African-Americans across the South celebrated the decision, with its call to abolish state-sanctioned school segregation “with all deliberate speed.”

Unfortunately, Bond said, “the emphasis was more on deliberate than on speed.”

White Southerners moved their children to segregated, tax-supported academies. And when schools did integrate, they often kept the trappings of their segregated past. Black teachers and principals lost their jobs. Black schools that were a source of community pride were closed.

“Booker T. Washington High School vanished,” Bond said. “Robert E. Lee High School persevered.”

Later the nation grew weary of civil rights conflict and elected presidents who turned the Supreme Court in a conservative direction. Neighborhood segregation produced schools that are more racially divided now than 40 years ago. And the Supreme Court embraces a colorblind ideal, which Bond described as being “blind to what it means to be the wrong color in the United States.”

But Bond, like his father, remains optimistic about what education can accomplish. The fact that the promise of Brown v. Board of Education hasn’t been realized, he said, doesn’t mean equal educational opportunity was the wrong goal to seek.

“Instead,” he said, “it’s a testament to the challenges that lie ahead.”

Watch for a video of Bond’s lecture on the Maurer School of Law YouTube channel.