Fifty years ago today, a landmark Supreme Court ruling ushered in the civil rights era — and the promise that all children, regardless of race, would have equal opportunity to public education.
But has the promise been fulfilled?
"From the reference we had, things are tremendously better," said Warren Livingston, 65, of Tempe, who attended segregated schools in Oklahoma before moving to Mesa in the 1950s. "But even when schools weren’t segregated anymore, segregation didn’t end."
In Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, a Kansas father sued for his daughter’s right to attend a whites-only school closer to her home, where she was refused admittance because of her race.
The court’s unanimous decision held that the part of the Constitution guaranteeing ‘‘equal protection of the laws’’ meant equal treatment for blacks and whites. The decision overturned a 19thcentury ruling permitting ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities and accommodations for the races.
Through the latter 1950s, the high court issued short, often unsigned opinions extending Brown’s rationale far beyond the schoolhouse — to buses, beaches and other areas where racial separation had been a daily fact of life.
But those rulings only ended government-ordered segregation. Across the country — and the East Valley — many public schools, touted as "neighborhood schools," continue to serve populations that are heavily white or heavily minority.
Napoleon Pisano of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens maintains that while some progress has been made, the Brown case has fallen short on its promises.
"Look at the testing gap between minorities and nonminorities. Look at the
dropout rates for minorities. Look at the number of white children in accelerated programs and the number of minority students in special education," he said. "Segregation has taken a different form, but it’s still there."
In the East Valley, the Chandler Unified School District and Tempe Elementary School District are the most ethnically diverse, with demographic changes in the Mesa Unified School District also rapidly occurring.
Under a desegregation agreement with the Office of Civil Rights stemming from a lawsuit in the 1970s, the Tempe district buses children to help maintain as equal a distribution by ethnicity as possible. The busing, however, is not forced; parents can still send a child to a neighborhood school.
"Busing in Tempe has always been with an eye toward ethnic balance and making sure no school is racially isolated," said Debra Gomez, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
The district’s diversity provides an opportunity to influence attitudes.
"All of us are more similar than we are different, and some differences are to be celebrated. By doing that, you educate everyone," Gomez said.
Cliff Moon, diversity specialist for the Mesa district, agreed.
"The bottom line is we have to recognize that while we have differences and should acknowledge differences, there’s a lot of commonality in the differences we see," he said.
Moon said segregation has taken on a different meaning than it had in the past.
"Just by where people move to, by socioeconomics, we still have segregation," he said.
A 1999 Harvard study supports his point. The report found that in 87 percent of the nation’s schools in which enrollment was 90 percent to 100 percent black or Hispanic, at least half of the students were poor. The study found that less than 8 percent of schools 90 percent to 100 percent white were poor.
This trend can also be seen in Mesa, where Lowell and L ongfellow elementary schools are predominantly Hispanic — and predominantly poor.
SEGREGATION IN MESA
Like many communities across the country, Mesa also had a history of segregation. Mexican-American students attended Webster Elementary School and black students were required to attend Washington Elementary School until elementary segregation ended in 1954 after the Brown ruling.
Segregation in Mesa’s junior high schools had ended two years earlier in 1952. But the district’s only high school, Mesa High, was never segregated, according to documents housed at the Mesa Historical Society.
Livingston, who graduated from Mesa in 1957 and went on to play football for the Dallas Cowboys, moved to Mesa after schools were integrated. But from his Oklahoma experience, he never forgot what school segregation was like.
"We got the hand-medowns from other schools. When they got new books, we got their old books," he said. "We knew how they used to say ‘Black people can’t do this and black people can’t do that.’ We knew that was true — but only because black people didn’t get a chance."
Livingston retired in 1993 from Motorola, where he worked as an electrical engineer.
Another black Mesan, Veora Johnson, also overcame the prejudice of her time to succeed — and she helped others do the same. Now deceased, Johnson became the first black principal in Mesa and the first black woman to earn her Arizona administrative credentials.
Photos in documents at the historical society show Johnson teaching black children to read at Washington school. Her friend, Susie Ishikawa Sato, 86, of Mesa, recalled last week that Johnson was "truly a good American."
Sato herself understood what it felt like to be discriminated against. As a Japanese-American living in Mesa during World War II, she had to stay on the city’s north side and was not allowed to cross Main Street into the "military zone."
Sato said she admired Johnson for her gracious humility.
"She wasn’t bitter (about segregation). She never even mentioned it," Sato said. "She was very well-educated and very concerned about the students. She hoped they would learn everything they needed to know."
In the Brown case, the court said no child could be expected to succeed if denied an education. "Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms," the ruling said.
When she retired in 1974, Johnson urged all youths not to waste that opportunity.
"A burning philosophy of life is needed as you journey down life’s pathway," she said. "So, strive and you shall win."