My daughter attends a historically black university, the school from which I graduated, as a matter of which I graduated, as a matter of fact. But she could go anywhere, provided she has the grades and her mother and I have the money. She still might.
Fifty years ago that was far from the case. There was a time when she would have only been allowed by law to attend Jackson State. Or Alcorn. Or Spelman. In an abstract sense, she knows that. But like most kids today, she looks upon that as "way back in the old days."
Maybe that's why she seems to take college for granted. I think I stress more over her grades than she does. I guess she just doesn't realize how valuable a college education at the institution of your choosing is, and how fortunate she is to be able to have that choice. After all, she wasn't around when that choice wasn't available.
But I was.
Fifty years ago, I got a choice in a roundabout way. In 1954, nine years before I was born and 15 before I started school, in the matter of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., the U.S. Supreme Court proclaimed what pretty much everybody in Mississippi already knew: "Separate, but equal" wasn't.
For African Americans and right-thinking white folk it was a "Well, duh!" moment, like when you lose a tire on the interstate and someone pulls up and says, "You know you lost your tire back there?"
But winning the decision was just the beginning. Jim Crow was wounded, but far from dead. For the next few dozen years, The-Powers-That-Be did everything they could to work around having to make right what went wrong. Maybe they couldn't legally lock the doors any more, but they could sure make the ride there a hellish one.
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta on the tail end of "desegregation." In the early '70s, when the slow-moving tidal wave that was court-ordered desegregation finally broke over that part of the country, I was bused from the elementary school in my hometown to another elementary school in the next, while the white kids whose parents had money attended one of the many academy schools that sprang up to keep them away from me.
That left us in the public schools. By "us," I mean the black kids, a handful of Hispanic and Chinese-American kids, the white kids whose parents taught there, and the poor white kids (about whom the rich kids seemed more concerned than they were us—maybe they thought they could catch being poor off them).
Me, I would rather have stayed at my own school. It was closer to home. I was used to it, even if I didn't like it all that much. After all, it was school. But I didn't have a choice so a-busing I did go.
Actually, I was wrong about that. I did have a choice. It was just a choice that I wasn't able to act upon at that time. Of course, that didn't stop me from complaining. Don't think too badly of me, though. I was a kid, and like most kids, my world ended at the horizon. It wasn't until I got older and started seriously considering life beyond high school that I realized just what that bus ride meant.
Brown was about choice. Being able to go where I wanted to go and study what I wanted to study. Of course, as many of us soon learned, getting in wasn't the same thing as getting through. Some of my friends caught pure torment on a number of fronts as they tried to make their way through Ole Miss and Mississippi State and other majority-white institutions. One friend of mine told me about witnessing officially sanctioned Klan rallies on campus. Others mentioned nasty notes on their desks and dorm rooms getting trashed. One fellow I know of got pounded into hamburger when he got the highest grade on an exam. He was told to "mind his place or else." He reported the incident and was written up himself for disturbing the peace! He transferred to a historically black school shortly after that. What is that saying? For evil to triumph, all it takes is for good to do nothing.
Sometimes, the authorities they looked to for guidance were the worst offenders. There are horror stories about professors who set out to prove that there was no place for a black face at "their" schools, and of those who felt they were fighting a holding action for the greater good by ensuring that no African American received a passing grade in his or her class. (Don't think that was "way back then," either. There are still university programs out there that have yet to graduate their first African-American student.)
But, by and large, we got through. Things have slowly gotten better since then. Not great. But better. There are more minority professors and teachers now than there were in the early '70s. There is also less tolerance for acts that back then were openly condoned. Having someone pitching for you, instead of at you, does make a difference.
Which brings me back to my daughter and the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education. Thanks to that historical "Well, duh!" moment, she is free to pursue her education as far as her will, determination and smarts will take her—but only if she acts on that choice. That's the real power of Brown, it gave her the opportunity to make her dreams a reality.
If I were to tell her one thing about Brown: I guess it would have to be this—you have a choice. Ride it for all it's worth.
Charles Tucker lives and writes in Jackson.