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Public Statements

Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary

By:
Date:
Location: Phoenix, AZ


Saturday, May 1, 2004
8:00 am
ASU Gammage Auditorium

Good morning and hello.

We are here today to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It declared racial segregation in America's public schools unconstitutional. A lot of people in the room today weren't even born when the U.S. Supreme Court made this decision - including me. That decision, among the first of many landmark civil rights cases handed down by the Supreme Court, brought profound reform to our public schools. In doing so, it began to change the public's perception about race relations in America. To understand the full impact of Brown in Arizona, we must first understand our own history.

The segregation of African American school children began legally in Arizona in 1909, when the Territorial Legislature passed a bill allowing for segregation in our schools. Phoenix was among the few communities that actually carried out this law by creating separate schools for the black and white races. Throughout the early 20th Century segregation affected all races in Arizona, with language barriers often used as the reason to separate Latino and Native American students from their white classmates.

But treatment of African American students was a bit more severe. In 1950 the Arizona Legislature went so far as to pass a state law that required Arizona's school districts to "segregate all pupils of the African race from pupils of the Caucasian race in all schools other than high schools…" The economic impact of segregation in Arizona is illustrated in part by the Eleven Mile School, a Black high school located halfway between Casa Grande and Eloy.

Instead of either providing their own "separate but equal" facilities or integrating their own high schools, these communities sent high school age black students to Eleven Mile School, a former dance hall consisting of two classrooms, two teachers, and two small shelves of books.

Shuttling students in this way cost the State of Arizona more than three times as much as schooling them in Casa Grande and Eloy.

Eleven Mile notwithstanding, efforts to end segregation were employed and some integration around the state was achieved between 1951 and 1953 with little fanfare. 1954, however, brought with it a case that would prove rather significant to Arizona's public school system.

The Wilson Elementary School District case set forth a ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Charles Berstein that segregation of school age children on the basis of race violated the 14th Amendment. The Brown Decision, which was decided shortly thereafter by the US Supreme Court, is speculated to have relied in part on Judge Berstein's order, and had a significant impact on Arizona.

In the wake of Brown, Arizona's African American residents, although legally integrated, began to feel push-back of desegregation, especially where teachers were concerned. Arizona's then Superintendent of Public Instruction noted, "It is a much easier problem to place the children in schools with white children than it is to place colored teachers in schools where they will instruct children of white parents. In such districts where segregation has taken place, I do not know of a single colored teacher being employed."

In 1959, Coy Payne applied for a job in a new elementary school in Chandler. The school administrator told him, he "could not teach there because white families in that area were not ready for a black teacher." It was not until 1966 that a predominantly white school in Chandler hired its first black teacher. I find great poetic justice in the fact that in 1990 Mr. Payne became Arizona's first Black mayor when he took office - in the city hall of Chandler.

Beyond our schools, the sting of segregation was also felt by Black professionals and entertainers who, when traveling in and through the state of Arizona, could not find public accommodations in mainstream white hotels. The public accommodation issue was later resolved in 1965, when the Arizona Legislature passed a public accommodation bill declaring discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin or ancestry in contravention to the policy of this state.

It was not until 1992 - after some 20 years of failed attempts in the Legislature, at the ballot box, and gubernatorial executive orders - that Arizona embraced a legend of the African American community through its adoption of the 3rd Monday in January as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Arizona became the only state to establish the holiday by a vote of the people, something we can be proud of today and for generations to come.

Although our successes are numerous, a formidable challenge remains before us. Children of all colors sit side by side in our classrooms, but they are not learning at the same rate.

African American children in the 3rd grade measure 5 percent below their Caucasian classmates in reading and mathematics, and 13 percent below in writing. These differentials steadily increase in grades 5 and 8, and by high school the achievement gap between Caucasian and African American students reaches a staggering 20 percent.

Nationally, Arizona's 4th grade African American children are 17 percent less proficient in reading and 24 percent less proficient in mathematics, when compared to their white counterparts.

What this means is that equal opportunity must also mean a system that equalizes other injustices or deficiencies. The statistics I just shared parallel the statistics for poor whites in many cases.

Early education, more personal attention, more remediation, a more rigorous curriculum and the expectation that all students will eventually seek higher education is crucial. It is both necessary and critical for personal and economic growth.

As it stands, only 17 percent of high school freshman in Arizona go on to earn some sort of college degree. Our goal must be to increase that number. To do so, we must look to academic changes, yes - but we cannot overlook the racial and economic inequities that persist in our school systems. Public schools were designed as the great equalizers of our society - the place where all children could have access to educational opportunities to make something of themselves in adulthood.

As we move deeper into the 21st Century, the need for a quality public school system will become more of an economic issue - and more of a civil rights issue. Because, as our economy relies more on brains and less on brawn, the only way everyone can secure all the blessings of liberty is to receive a quality education. Those without adequate schooling will find fewer and fewer jobs available to them, which in turn will limit their ability to move as freely in society as you and I can.

So as we reflect on how far we have come in the 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education was handed down, it is vital that we look forward to the challenges of the next 50 years. We must understand today that giving all children equal access to our classrooms was a good start but only a start. Our challenge now is to take up the next great civil rights movement - equal educational opportunities for all Americans.

For today, I hope you enjoy the program. The Hayzel B. Daniels Bar Association and staff from my office worked very hard to make this re-enactment possible, and I thank each of them for such an imaginative event with such a distinguished cast of participants.

Thank you.

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