Remembering Brown: Silence, Loss, Rage, and Hope


In the following article, James A. Banks, the Kerry and Linda Killinger Professor and Director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, describes his Arkansas community's reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision when it was announced in 1954.

Segregated_SchoolI was in the seventh grade at the Newsome Training School in Aubrey, Arkansas when the Supreme Court handed down Brown vs. Board of Education on May 17, 1954. My most powerful memory of the Brown decision is that I have no memory of it being rendered or mentioned by my parents, teachers, or preachers. In my rural southern black community, there was a conspiracy of silence about Brown. It was completely invisible.

A conspiracy of silence
I can only speculate about the meaning of the silence about Brown in the Arkansas delta in which racial segregation was codified in both law and custom in every aspect of our lives. The only public library in Lee County was 9 miles from our family farm in Marianna, the county seat that had a population of 4,550. Although I was an avid reader, I could not use the public library. It was for whites only. The only time I saw the inside of the public library was when the choir from my all-black high school entertained a white civic group in the library. We had to see second-run movies at the all-black Blue Haven Theatre. To see first-run movies, we had to go to the white Imperial Theatre and enter the “Colored entrance,” which led upstairs where the projection room was also located. We could hear the rattle of the movie projector as we tried to concentrate on the movie. Marianna and Lee County, Arkansas epitomized the institutionalized discrimination and racism that existed throughout the Deep South in the mid-1950s. The conspiracy of silence about Brown in Lee County among whites was probably caused by fear that news of Brown might disrupt the institutionalized racist system of segregation that had been established in Lee County in the years after Reconstruction. That system was never publicly challenged or questioned by whites or blacks. Black resistance to racism was deep but covert. Blacks wore a mask as they feigned contentment around whites as their anger seethed below the surface, ready to explode. The statue of Robert E. Lee that towered above the park in the Town Square symbolized the racial oppression that gripped the community in which I, and many other southern blacks, came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. My teachers and preachers surely knew about the Brown decision and must have been quietly joyous about it. However, it must have also evoked fear in them as well, about losing their jobs and their schools. They must have quietly discussed Brown among themselves, out of the earshot of the children and certainly out of the earshot of whites. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took the five cases that constituted the Brown decision to the Supreme Court. The white establishment throughout the Deep South regarded the NAACP as a subversive and dangerous organization. It was viewed with as much suspicion and animosity as was the Communist Party in the North. Black teachers were often fired by school boards in the South when it was learned that they were members of the NAACP. The white school boards controlled both black and white schools. Consequently, for black teachers to spread the word about the Brown decision, especially among students, would probably have been considered a subversive and dangerous act.

Picture: Segregated School in West Memphis, Arkansas, 1949.

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)