The Civil Rights Struggle, by Marchell Norris
“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”- Malcolm X
Thus began John Jones’s letter to Illinois Governor Richard Yates, November 4,1864. By the time Jones wrote this letter he was the best-known and wealthiest African-American in the state. Though wealthier by far than most Illinoisans, still Jones could not vote.
“Your petitioner, though humble in position, and having no political status in your State, notwithstanding I have resided in it for twenty-five years, and today am paying taxes on thirty thousand dollars, most humbly beseech you to recommend in your Message to the Legislature… the repeal of the Black Laws of this your State.”
Born in North Carolina in 1816 or 1817, Jones had arrived about 1841 in Madison County, Illinois, where he took up residence illegally. It was not until three years later, as he prepared to move to Chicago with his wife and infant daughter, that he filed the necessary bond and received his certificate of freedom, a document required by every black person in the state. Because he had been born out of state, under the law of 1829 he was required to file a bond of $1,000 to insure that he would not become “a charge to the county,” or violate any laws. Although Illinois entered the Union nominally as a free state in 1818, slavery had existed there for nearly one hundred years. It would continue to exist, albeit under increasing restrictions, until 1845.
But the elimination of legal slavery did not mean the removal of the Black Codes. Indeed, it was not until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the adoption of the Illinois Constitution of 1870 that the last legal barriers (but not the societal) ended. Like their midwestern neighbors, most early Illinois settlers believed in white supremacy and African-American inferiority. Consequently, Illinois’ constitutions and laws reflected those views.
Not only did Illinois newspapers carry advertisements for runaways, the state attempted to further discourage black immigration by raising new barriers. The 1829 law required any free black to register in the county seat and post a $1,000 bond to cover costs should they become indigent or violate state or local laws. Since few black men or women had such sums available, they usually had to find a friendly white man to act as surety for them. At the same time, blacks also had to register their certificates of freedom from the state from which they immigrated.
Despite the restrictions and repression, the Illinois black population continued to grow slowly. While the number of slaves continued to decline, the indenture system remained harsh and restrictive. As late as 1843, United States Senator-elect Sidney Breese,( Democrat) needing money to set up housekeeping in Washington, D.C., wrote to former Lieutenant-Governor Pierre Menard, offering to “place in your hands some valuable negroes with power to sell them. .
Plessy v. Ferguson, Plessy (P), 7/8 white and having white skin, attempted to sit in an all-white railroad car. After refusing to sit in the black railway carriage car, Plessy was arrested for violating an 1890 Louisiana statute that provided for segregated “separate but equal” railroad accommodations. Those using facilities not designated for their race were criminally liable under the statute.
The case arose from resentment among black and Creole residents of New Orleans and was supported by the railroad companies, who felt it unnecessary to pay the cost of separate cars. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote the majority opinion, stating that “separate but equal” laws did not imply the inferiority of one race to another. Justice John Harlan (1833–1911) dissented, arguing that the U.S. Constitution was color-blind. The decision provided constitutional sanction for the adoption throughout the South of a comprehensive series of Jim Crow laws, which were maintained until overruled in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. It had particular relevance to education, with Justice Brown drawing parallels between race segregation on trains and in educational facilities.
At trial with Justice John H. Ferguson (D) presiding, Plessy was found guilty on the grounds that the law was a reasonable exercise of the state’s police powers based upon custom, usage, and tradition in the state.
Plessy filed a petition for writs of prohibition and certiorari in the Supreme Court of Louisiana against Ferguson, asserting that segregation stigmatized blacks and stamped them with a badge of inferiority in violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments.
The Supreme Court ruling in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate facilities for whites and blacks were constitutional encouraged the passage of discriminatory laws that wiped out the gains made by blacks during Reconstruction. Railways and streetcars, public waiting rooms, restaurants, boardinghouses, theaters, and public parks were segregated; separate schools, hospitals, and other public institutions, generally of inferior quality, were designated for blacks.
By World War I, even places of employment were segregated, and it was not until after World War II that an assault on Jim Crow in the South began to make headway. In 1950 the Supreme Court ruled that the Univ. of Texas must admit a black, Herman Sweatt, to the law school, on the grounds that the state did not provide equal education for him. This was followed (1954) by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., declaring separate facilities by race to be unconstitutional.
Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. In a landmark case regarding segregation of schools, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools violated rights established in the 14th Amendment. The case involved an eight-year-old girl named Linda Brown who had to cross Topeka, Kansas, to go to school, while her white friends attended a public school nearby. Even while the two schools were apparently equal, Brown’s parents argued that the schools were inherently unequal and that segregation has deleterious effects on children based on “intangible” factors. As a direct result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the city received a federal court order to desegregate its public schools.
Local Schools funded by Property Taxes & Forced Registration
While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country.
We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity. . . .
America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.1
– President George W. Bush, January 2001
Since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was decided, the country’s public schools struggle with many of the same racial disparities that confronted the Supreme Court during that fateful period. The civil rights movement built on Brown to end mass de jure segregation in the Southern states, and schools across the country generally became more integrated through the 1980s. Since then, however, progress towards desegregation has reversed, and the national conversation on this goal has stalled.
Despite a national focus on improving public education, desegregation is often left off the reform agenda. Our national regression on desegregation is apparent in a number of statistics. According to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, 2006-2007 data show that most African-American and Latino students attend schools that are three-fourths minority students, with two in five Latino and African-American students attending intensely segregated schools of 90-100 percent minority enrollment.
Sadly, as large numbers of black and Latino families have moved from cities to surrounding suburbs, segregation has moved with them: around 40 percent of black students and nearly 50 percent of Latino students in the suburbs are in schools that are less than 20 percent white.
School segregation contradicts our deepest values of equality and justice, and it has direct academic consequences for our children. The Civil Rights Project reported in 2009 that high minority, low-income schools are disproportionately identified as failing schools under the “No Child Left Behind” benchmarks, meaning that vast majorities of minority children in these schools fail to demonstrate proficient scores in basic subjects.
The correlation between high minority and low-income populations in public school settings means these students experience severely unequal access to educational resources, quality academic curricula, credentialed teachers who are committed to staying in that community, and meaningful collegiate and professional opportunities.