50th Anniversary of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka

By:  Mitch McConnell
Date: May 17, 2004
Location: Washington DC

50TH ANNIVERSARY OF BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA

Mr. McCONNELL. Madam President, I rise this morning to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.

As I stand at my desk on the Senate floor, my eyes are often drawn to the inscription etched in marble directly above the rostrum.

The inscription reads, "E Pluribus Unum." Translated into English, this means, "out of many, one." The founding fathers selected "E Pluribus Unum" to signify the union of our thirteen original colonies into a single cohesive nation-the United States of America. They understood that America's future success, and indeed our strength, would be enhanced through this union.

As our Nation grew in size, population, and diversity, our national motto took on greater meaning.

Today, "E Pluribus Unum" reminds us that America is home to a collection of individuals of all races, creeds, and backgrounds. These individuals together make up America's strength and majesty.

I do not believe the architects of this hallowed chamber etched these words into such a prominent place by accident. As you know, Senate rules require every Senator to engage in debate-no matter how heated or contentious-through the presiding officer. These three words, "E Pluribus Unum," inscribed directly above the presiding officer serve to remind us that regardless of the differences that may divide this body on a given day, we will emerge united as a Senate and united as a Nation.

As columnist George Will noted, we are "a nation defined by our unum, not our pluribus."

Yet, tragically, for much of our Nation's history, millions of African-Americans were excluded from fully participating in our democracy-first by slavery, and later through a system of State-sponsored segregation.

This system of legalized segregation was sanctioned by the Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson and its doctrine allowing for "separate, but equal" public accommodations, including schools.

It is with some pride that I note that a Kentuckian, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan, was the lone dissenting voice on the Court in the Plessy case. In his stinging dissent, Justice Harlan argued:

Our Constitution is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens . . . the destinies of the two races are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of the law.

Justice Harlan also noted, "the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case"-referring to the case right before the Civil War.

Justice Harlan's words proved prophetic as more and more Americans grew to understand that a nation forcibly separated by law could never fully realize its destiny as a beacon of freedom, nor truly live up to its motto, "E Pluribus Unum."

By denying African-American children the equal opportunity to attend the same schools as their fellow citizens, States denied these children the opportunity to fully participate economically, socially, or politically in our society as adults.

Fifty years ago this morning, the Supreme Court agreed when it ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Simply, yet eloquently, a unanimous Supreme Court found, "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The Court later directed the States to move forward with desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

In 1954, Kentucky had already begun taking the first small steps towards integrating the State's schools. While the State's elementary and secondary schools remained segregated in 1954, Kentucky had begun chipping away at our state's infamous 1904 "Day Law," which mandated racial segregation in public education.

On the day following the decision, the Louisville Courier-Journal noted, "The Supreme Court, in a decision marked by reason and restraint, has enunciated a doctrine of morality."

Madam President, it is fitting and appropriate that we mark the 50th Anniversary of the Brown decision. However, we must also understand that while Brown opened the schoolhouse doors to all children, it could not guarantee that every child, regardless of race, receives a high quality education.

That task has been left to the generations that have followed.

In the years since, educators have documented an unsettling and persistent achievement gap between minority and non-minority students. A similar gap exists between poor and non-poor students.

For example, in my home state of Kentucky minority students are much less likely to read proficiently at grade level than their non-minority counterparts. Similar results have been documented nationally.

For decades, the Federal Government spent countless billions with the goal of eliminating the achievement gap but without demanding any real accountability for improving results. Since no results were demanded, none were forthcoming.

From 1965 to 2001, the Federal Government spent more than $150 billion to address the achievement gap. Total education spending doubled during that period from 1965 to 2001, even after accounting for inflation. Yet during most of this period, reading and math scores remained flat. If funding were the problem, we would have solved the achievement gap years ago.

During this period too many Americans came to accept the achievement gap as the inevitable result of a student's environment or believe the erroneous claim that a certain percentage of students will not ever be able to meet even basic standards in reading and math. All too often, schools just passed these students along from grade to grade through social promotion policies. While the schools may not have failed students on their report cards, they failed to prepare them for life's challenges.

In his 2000 Presidential campaign, then-Governor Bush described this mistaken attitude as "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Following his election, the President moved quickly with leaders in both parties to attack the achievement gap and enact the No Child Left Behind law.

This historic legislation is grounded in the simple principle that every child can learn and that no child should be left behind. It recognizes the fundamental importance of reading for all children. As the President has explained, "Literacy is liberation. . . . The ability to read is what turns a child into a student. First we learn to read, and then we read to learn."

The law sets high standards for all groups of students, and then holds schools accountable for improving academic achievement across the board. For the first time, the No Child Left Behind Act requires States to examine not only an entire school's progress but also the progress of subgroups of students within a school to make sure we do not give up on any child, regardless of their color, language, or economic circumstance.

If any of these subgroups is not meeting the school's goal of adequate yearly progress, then the whole school has failed to meet its goals. The days of spending and education without accountability are over. Setting high standards for all our students is critical to ensuring that every single child receives an equal opportunity for a quality education.

In writing for the unanimous court in the Brown decision, Chief Justice Warren noted:

In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

Those words were never more accurate than they are today. While we mark the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown decision to opening America's schools to all children, we must also remember that ensuring every child receives a quality education is the ongoing responsibility for each generation of leaders that follows.

Madam President, I yield the floor.