Brown vs. BOE changed face of education
Bob Ingram, Alabama Scene
MONTGOMERY – Back in the mid-1980s I wrote a couple of books about my years covering Alabama politics and in one of them I had a chapter devoted to what I called the "Top Ten" stories I had covered from 1953 until 1986. the year the book was published.
If you have a passing interest in politics…and have a little age on you…then you could probably guess what most of them were: The murder of Albert Patterson…Wallace standing in the door…the confrontation at the bridge in Selma…Lurleen Wallace's election and death…the attempt on Wallace's life…Fob James beating the Three B's in 1978 for governor…the Baxley-Graddick fiasco which led to Guy Hunt's election.
Looking back on that list today I can only wonder how could I have been so dumb as not to include at the top of the list the event which occurred 50 years ago this week…the U. S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
As you surely know from all the attention it is getting in the media, it was on May 17, 1954, that the Supreme Court unanimously declared that separate but equal schools for blacks and whites was unconstitutional.
There was no story…no event…which had greater impact on Alabama than that decision..certainly none of those on my list in my book came close.
The initial reaction to the decision was of the knee-jerk variety. Elected officials in Alabama and the South sang pretty much the same song.
U. S. Sens. Lister Hill and John Sparkman issued a joint statement saying they "deplored" the decision; Gov. Gordon Persons declined any initial comment, but in next-door Georgia the governor of that state, Herman Talmadge, had plenty to say: "There will never be mixed schools while I am governor."
The decision, and the civil rights movement it launched, dominated Alabama politics for years to come. The wrong stand on the issue of civil rights…or more correctly, the perceived wrong stand…ended political careers.
James E. (Big Jim) Folsom, who had been elected to a second term as governor only two weeks before Brown vs. Board of Education, was one of those who….in the view of the people…took the wrong stand. After a landslide victory for governor in '54, he was a non-factor for the remainder of his life. He never won another election.
In the wake of the court ruling he dared to call for restraint …he called "hogwash" a silly resolution introduced in the Legislature which sought to "nullify" the school de-segregation decision…and he did the unthinkable by inviting black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to the Mansion for a drink.
On the flip side was a young George Wallace. He had been Folsom's South Alabama campaign manager in '54, but after getting what he called "out-segged" in the '58 governor's race, he became a political chameleon–changing his colors to become a defiant segregationist. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the most prophetic comments to come in the hours after Brown vs. Board of education came from Grover C. Hall Jr., editor of the Montgomery Advertiser.
Wrote Hall on the morning after the decision:
"We don't know of a sensible person who ever thought that segregation as we know it would continue indefinitely. Neither do we know a sensible person who expects it to expire anytime soon."
He was so accurate. The court had dictated that the order be carried out "with all deliberate speed" and the state's in the Deep South gave a new definition to the word "speed." It was years before there was any meaningful integration of public schools in Alabama.
But the decision…while it related only to public schools…led to what we know as the Civil Rights movement which brought dramatic changes in all walks of life.
If I ever make another "Top Ten" list of major stories I have covered, Brown vs. Board of Education will be on it.
At the top.