May 17, 1954: The day the winds of change began

May 17th is a special day for the West household.  You see, my wife of 20 years was born on May 17th.  Every year, we celebrate her birthday in some form or fashion.  We might go out to eat, and my wife will open some birthday presents.  The weather is usually warm and pleasant, and overall, it’s a day of celebration.

Exactly 19 years before my wife was born, the Supreme Court made a momentous ruling.  Ever heard of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling?  Most of you have heard of this ruling, but for those of you who haven’t, I will share with you some simple facts.  The Supreme Court, by a unanimous 9 to 0 ruling, declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.  

This landmark decision overturned the 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that state laws requiring segregated schools were constitutional.  The ruling was based on the concept of “separate but equal”, meaning that racial segregation was permitted under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  58 years later, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturned this concept.  The Supreme Court ruled that segregating schools was a violation of the 14th amendment which guaranteed equal protection under the laws to all citizens.

CarolinaPreps.com - General Manager Jim West
CarolinaPreps.com – General Manager Jim West

At the time of this ruling, 17 states had laws requiring racial segregation.  These states were Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma.  The District of Columbia had rules requiring elementary schools to be segregated.  Four other states, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming had laws that permitted segregated schools for their counties.

The states affected by these laws did not change overnight.  13 years after the Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka ruling, only 22% of the black students were enrolled in integrated schools.

The concept of “separate but equal” was a myth in many areas in our nation.  My mother taught in the 1960’s at two all-black elementary schools, one in Southern Pines and one in Albemarle.  Mom, who along with my father, instilled the belief that all men are created equal.  However, the conditions at the schools were not equal to that of the all-white and integrated schools.  It was not uncommon for the black schools to have text books that were 20 years old.  Try teaching science or history effectively with a 20 year old textbook.  Trust me, it’s impossible.

February is African-American History month.  This month is very special to me on many different levels, the biggest being that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling guaranteed that I would attend school with black students, most of whom have become lifelong friends.  These classmates are friends…not black friends, not “tokens”, but friends.  I believe that all of my friends are special and all have their distinctive qualities that make them special.  Had this landmark ruling not been rendered, I might have been denied a considerable amount of cherished memories.

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