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Tracy James
IU Media Relations
traljame@indiana.edu
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Suzanne Eckes
School of Education
seckes@indiana.edu

Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

50 years since Brown v. Board of Education

Years of desegregation and now resegregation

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Suzanne Eckes taught high school French in the Mississippi Delta region of the United States, white students and African American students attended separate schools located roughly a mile apart. This type of segregation was different from other types of segregation she had witnessed, because white families were paying tuition for their children to attend a school that did not offer greater educational opportunity than the public school.

When Eckes, now an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington, thinks back to those years, she has only to look to the mid-1990s, decades after the revolutionary Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court ruling that effectively set the country on the road to racial desegregation. During the course of this cultural journey, defiant white parents established private "academies" throughout the Mississippi Delta region to avoid desegregating their schools as called for by the country's highest court. As Eckes learned, many of these private schools still exist throughout the Mississippi Delta area.

A former attorney, Eckes also points to what she considers an unfavorable change in how the U.S. Supreme Court considers school desegregation issues, describing a more hands-off approach beginning in the mid-1970s. As Americans commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown ruling, the gains in educational, employment and other opportunities available to African Americans are undeniable, but so is the backslide -- what Eckes describes as a process of resegregation.

Legal experts, civil rights authorities, educators, historians and sociologists are among those who will visit IU Bloomington this spring to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown ruling. The guests and local experts will participate in lectures, panel discussions and film screenings designed to honor the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down the "separate-but-equal" doctrine and was a turning point in the push for equality among all races. The Brown case will turn 50 on May 17.

Eckes did more than just ponder the puzzling segregation she observed in the community in which she taught high school. She conducted extensive interviews aimed at pinpointing the barriers to racial integration of the schools in that particular community, which she calls simply "Delta County" in her research to give the schools and research participants a degree of anonymity.

"I had always witnessed white flight to the suburbs or seen white students attending private schools that offered greater educational opportunities," Eckes said. "(Delta County) was a different situation -- white students were paying tuition to attend a school that did not offer greater educational opportunity."

She noted that the Supreme Court initially left the implementation of its Brown ruling up to local communities, some of which made no effort to desegregate their schools, and some of which, as in the case of Delta County, built private schools for white students. The courts had no influence over this situation in Delta County because the white students were attending a private school.

Eckes found that none of the students interviewed who attended the predominantly black public school wanted to attend the private school, because they thought it made no sense to pay tuition to attend a school that did not offer greater educational opportunities.

The top reasons given by white students and parents against attending the public school involved concerns about safety and discipline, a belief that students could participate more in extracurricular activities at a smaller school such as the private school, and a belief that private school students received a better education. Eckes found little evidence to support these claims, and she believes that more research is needed to see whether barriers such as these described by private school advocates are, instead, euphemisms for racism.

She said her research is particularly important because segregation among schools nationwide is increasing, although research supports the educational benefits of integration for both minority and white students.

In a forthcoming article about the 50th anniversary of Brown, Eckes writes that the racial divide facing school districts today is almost as great as it was in 1954. She cites three Supreme Court decisions handed down in the 1990s as contributing greatly to the decline (Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell, 1991; Freeman v. Pitts, 1992; and Missouri v. Jenkins, 1995). These three cases gave court approval for the dismantling of schools' desegregation plans.

The mid-1970s through 1991 saw an anti-busing backlash and an increase in the power of suburbs, Eckes noted. Despite the flurry of legal activity at the lower court level, the Supreme Court appeared to be retreating from desegregation issues. During the 1990s, the Supreme Court made it easier for public school districts to have their desegregation decrees -- or portions of them -- lifted, despite evidence the schools might become more segregated. More than 100 school districts have such court-ordered desegregation decrees, Eckes said.

School districts generally can receive permission from the courts to lift their desegregation decrees if the districts have achieved unitary status, a status usually granted when a district is considered desegregated. This new approach has resulted in decrees being lifted from school districts that remain segregated or are expected to become segregated, she said.

This comes at a time when schools are becoming substantially more segregated. In 1980, for example, 63 percent of minority students attended predominantly minority schools. In 1998, 70 percent of minority students attended such schools. Eckes said the Supreme Court needs to give further guidance on how unitary status is achieved and what is meant by "vestiges of discrimination," a legal term used when considering unitary status.

Eckes can be reached at: seckes@indiana.edu.

For continued updates on IU Bloomington commemoration events, dates and times, visit http://www.indiana.edu/~libugls/brown/events.html.