A couple of months ago, the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. Brown, described by many constitutional scholars as the most important court decision of the 20th century, has become a part of American iconography. Everybody, nowadays, is for it.

Ironically, the most segregated states nowadays are the liberal ones.

Brown shattered assumptions about race and the structure of society. In the ensuing years, it sparked a civil rights revolution that has changed everything from the way we talk about skin color to the composition of the American workforce. The courageous lawyers—and plaintiffs—who pressed the case, sometimes at serious risk to their lives, deserve all the accolades history can bestow.

Yet Brown, for its treasured place in the American story, was controversial. Opposition was hardly limited to a handful of diehard segregationists. Some mainstream newspapers opposed it. So did many leading politicians. There were even opponents within the black community. Many worried that thousands of black teachers would lose their jobs (they did) or that local parents would lose control of their schools (that happened, too). The law of unintended consequences applies to every great achievement, and Brown was no exception.

Sadly, many of the decision's opponents were evangelical Christians, even though the Southern Baptist Convention by that time had taken a stand against segregation. But, all through the South, pastors told their flocks that God had decreed separation of the races. Others said the Bible had nothing to say about social arrangements and the church should therefore stay out of the controversy. Brown also sparked the founding of the "segregation academies," many of them professedly Christian, that continue to dot the Bible Belt.

Indeed, Brown changed the public education system—but not in the way its supporters hoped. The revolution turned out to be a rather uneven one. For almost a decade, few segregated school districts changed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which denies federal funds to schools that discriminate, may have had as much to do with the ultimate shift as the court decision did. (To be sure, without the decision, there might have been no Act.)

The larger problem is that the nation's public schools have largely resegregated, with some three-quarters of black children attending predominantly black schools. Ironically, the data show that the most segregated states are nowadays the liberal "blue" states, with New York, Illinois, Michigan, and California topping the list. The aforementioned segregation academies have had some small negative effect on school integration, but "white flight"—largely a Northern and Midwestern phenomenon—has had a much larger effect.

Article continues below

Unfortunately, a new report by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute says, "In every state, districts with high minority concentrations had lower graduation rates than districts where whites were the majority." The study found that while 75 percent of white high schoolers graduated in 2001, only 50 percent of black high school students did.

I would be the last person to argue that black kids cannot be well educated in mostly black schools, such as the elementary schools I attended in New York and Washington, D.C. I did not, to my knowledge, suffer in consequence. But the preservation of segregated education, of whatever quality, is not what the shining promise of Brown was all about.

The bright hope of Brown was to build a society without the racial caste system that had for so long determined destiny according to skin color. The progress toward that goal has been tremendous. Yet we are a good distance from the finish. More worrisomely, we may no longer be running the race. In this political season, amid deep divisions over war, the economy, and the slate of so-called social issues, politicians of both parties seem to be running away from race. Not very long ago, racial equality was central to the national agenda. But it has been supplanted by other concerns. Everyone pays lip service to the need to help the less fortunate, to rebuild our inner cities, to assure quality education, and so on. But the true measure of a political movement is the agenda for which it is willing to ask sacrifice, and racial equality rarely makes the list.

Yet, for the Christian, the lack of national interest in racial suffering should provide both inspiration and an opportunity. The sparkling world Brown hoped to build is yet within grasp. But we will have to build it as individuals, with the small decisions of everyday life, rather than through bigger and better government programs. The nation is full of fatherless children to mentor, collapsed families to support, crumbling schools to visit—and human hearts to touch.

Related Elsewhere:

More on Brown v. Board of Education is available from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Library of Congress, and Washburn University School of Law.

Article continues below

The United States Dept. of the Interior has listed the Monroe Elementary School as a National Historic Site.

Recent Christianity Today columns by Stephen L. Carter include:

A Politics of Gratitude | Stop whining, count your blessings, and love your global neighbors. (March 08, 2004)
Sports Mobs and Manners | There's a difference between cheering the home team and being boorish. (Aug. 25, 2003)
Roe vs. Judicial Sense | Forget briefly its immorality—it's just bad law (July 1, 2003)
Willing to Lose | By voting we place our hope in the next world. (March 4, 2003)
Virtue via Vouchers | The Supreme Court's recent decision can help prevent more corporate scandals. (Dec. 4, 2002)
Remedial History | The educational establishment seems confused about our spiritual heritage. (July 10, 2002)
Uncle Sam Is Not Your Dad | The separation of church and state protects families too. (March 22, 2002)
A Quiet Compromise | Why a moment of silence is better than school prayer. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Leaving 'Normal' Behind | Life before September 11 seemed more secure, but do we really want it back? (Dec. 4, 2001)
Rudeness Has a First Name | Instant informality actually sabotages true friendship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Why Rules Rule | Debates on the Ten Commandments expose our culture's ultimate rift. (Sept. 6, 2001)
We Interrupt This Childhood | Parents who raise their children to do right face a barrage of resistance. (July 11, 2001)
And the Word Turned Secular | Christians should count the cost of the state's affirmation. (May 29, 2001)
Vouching for Parents | Vouchers are not an attack on public schools but a vote of trust in families. (Apr. 2, 2001)
The Courage to Lose | In elections, and in life, there is something more important than winning. (Feb. 6, 2001)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
Previous Civil Reactions Columns:

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.