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Landmark civil rights ruling will be commemorated in readings, discussion, prayer
(Bethlehem, Pa.)—Moravian College’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and Good Schools Pennsylvania, a citizens’ advocacy group for the state’s primary and secondary school system, will observe the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision.
Argued by Thurgood Marshall and supported by the NAACP, the case overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” that had been an approved policy since 1896, when the court approved a state’s right to segregate public facilities in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
The three-part observance of the Brown case’s golden anniversary is co-sponsored by the Tri-City African American Chamber of Commerce, Lehigh-Pocono Committee of Concern, and Children’s Coalition of the Lehigh Valley.
Sharon Brown, director of the Office of Institutional Diversity at Moravian, and James Johnson, visiting assistant professor of history, are the College coordinators of the commemoration. The following events will be held:
• Community reading and discussion of Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 23.
• Panel discussion of Brown v. Board of Education and community dialogue, with William Scott, professor of Africana studies, Lehigh University; Louis Mason, principal, Camden (N.J.) School District; Sharon Gavin Levy, parent, Bethlehem Area School District; Nelida Sepulveda, campaign director, Good Schools Pennsylvania. 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, April 14.
• Prayer service, details to be announced May 15.
The first two events will take place in the Saal, a large community room of Moravian Theological Seminary, 60 W. Locust St., Bethlehem. For information: (610) 861-7847. There is no charge for any of the events.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, an African -American named Homer Adolph Plessy (who was 7/8 white and 1/8 black) appealed a decision by an East Louisiana Railroad conductor that Plessy leave a “whites only” car and sit in the “colored” car. Plessy’s case was heard by Judge John Howard Ferguson, who found him guilty. Plessy took his case to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, with the same results, and then to the U.S Supreme Court.
A majority of seven, led by Justice Henry Brown, found that a facility need not be open to African-Americans if a separate but equal facility was available to them. The “separate but equal” doctrine was applied throughout Southern states, and even some Midwestern and Northern states, to schools, housing, swimming pools, and lunch counters.
The lone dissenter on Plessy was Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911), who wrote: “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”'
In 1953, the parents of Linda Brown filed suit to allow their daughter, then 8, to attend a neighborhood school less than seven blocks away rather than walk a mile and cross a railroad switchyard to a black school. The NAACP encouraged their suit, arguing that all-black school were in no way equal to all-white schools—not only financially, in terms of resources for students, but conceptually. Marshall’s brief to the Supreme Court stated that segregated schools inherently provided reduced resources to all students because they restricted thinking as well as acting, and no way to learn about others different from themselves.
The court’s Chief Justice was Earl Warren, who wrote and delivered its unanimous opinion with the historic words: “We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Shortly after the Brown decision, Justice Harlan’s grandson, also named John Marshall Harlan, was appointed to the Supreme Court, which had vindicated his grandfather’s 58-year-old dissent. And in 1967, Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court, on which he served for 24 years.