On MLK Weekend, Remembering the Quiet Soldiers

This Sunday I'll be at an event with Brian Lehrer called "In MLK's Footsteps: Education as a Civil Right" for WNYC's sixth annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration.

In 1964, the year I was born, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave was largely and overtly segregated by law. My kids like to tell me I’m old; but I’m not that old; and 1964 was not that long ago. Water fountains were designated “White” and “Colored.” All “public accommodations” in southern states were so divided: lunch counters, public transportation, and, perhaps most famously, pubic schools were all carefully delineated to keep the races apart. Conditions were surely better here in the North; but that does not mean they were good.

The forces against injustice were on the rise. Segregationists were clinging desperately and violently to their traditions rooted in slavery and white supremacy. Just months before I was born, one of the South’s favorite sons stepped to a podium to make clear, to the rest of the nation, what Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the rest of the South stood for and would be fighting for, in the coming months and years.

George Wallace was the newly elected governor of Alabama. He had made his career as an ardent segregationist. As governor he would challenge the federal government’s attempt to enforce laws prohibiting segregation in Alabama’s public schools and other public institutions. On a cold January morning, he spoke in broad strokes. The speech became most famous for the single line: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” It was a rallying cry for those opposed to integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and the vision of the man we celebrate this weekend, Martin Luther King, Jr.

As for any generation, time and place are major factors in how we come to understand our world. It was true for George Wallace and it is true for me. Governor Wallace was reacting, in his inaugural address and in every stroke of his pen while in office, to one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history. Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white children are unconstitutional, came down in 1954. The case overturned an earlier decision from 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, which had previously allowed state-sponsored segregation in all contexts.

In those tumultuous times, the real power of the Brown decision was in its unanimity. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The result: segregation de jure (legal segregation) was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling paved the way for integration and the Civil Rights Movement and is one of the most significant cases in American jurisprudential history.

Although Brown came down ten years before I was born, it established the broad parameters of my childhood and informed my sense of self. I recognized, going as far back as I can remember, that my schooling, my educational opportunities, from my kindergarten years at the Henry Street Settlement to my post-graduate study at Berkeley and Stanford—indeed, my every chance in life—would be entirely different from that of children who looked just like me, born only a generation before.

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the team of lawyers who fought in Brown and the cases that followed. One of those attorneys, Robert L. Carter, a leading strategist and a persuasive voice on Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund, later went on to serve as a federal judge. Judge Carter passed away just last week. His finely-tuned argument that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional on its face became the Supreme Court’s own conclusion in Brown. The Court’s opinion unraveled decades of legal precedent that previously supported the “separate but equal” doctrine.

My father, a news junkie, saved old newspapers from every important moment in history; they cluttered his workspace, an architectural table that sat in the middle of our small living room. I grew up with the ever-present image of a large group of handsome black attorneys standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, after their victory in Brown, Robert L. Carter among them. I knew then, and I know now, they were fighting for me.