US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On May 18, 1954, Nettie Hunt lowered herself onto a large marble step and wrapped an arm around her three and a half year-old daughter, Nikie. In her other hand she held a copy of the morning newspaper. A breeze flipped up one corner, partially obscuring the headline, but it was legible enough: HIGH COURT BANS SEGREGATION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

The staged photograph, taken sixty years ago this past Sunday, quickly became iconic. Nettie and Nikie Hunt were not the sort of people often found in the halls of power; a child and a woman, both black, they were people politicians rarely addressed. In the century that followed the Civil War, when politicians did speak to black Americans, the word was almost always the same: Wait.

When the justices ruled public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision the Hunts celebrated on the Supreme Court steps, the waiting appeared to be over. For the first time since Reconstruction ended in 1877, black Americans had a branch of the federal government on their side. Yet one branch was not enough. White southern politicians openly defied the law. In 1956, southern congressmen issued the "Southern Manifesto," denying the legitimacy of Brown and vowing massive resistance. And resist they did. By 1963, nine years after Brown, only 1 percent of black children in the South went to school with white children.

It took a historic grassroots movement, countless martyrs, the deployment of federal troops and two landmark pieces of legislation to finally break the back of Jim Crow in the South. But even with all three branches of the federal government on board, school desegregation remained elusive. Nor was this an exclusively southern problem. In Boston, schools grew more segregated between 1965 and 1973 as white Bostonians practiced some massive resistance of their own. The leading group was Louise Day Hicks’s ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights), which organized school boycotts, mothers’ marches and sit-ins, all protest styles copied from the civil rights movement they were resisting.

Hicks, like Nettie Hunt, represented the women-led family politics that came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. At a time when women were idealized as housewives, activists took that maternal role and brought it to bear on politics: mothers defending their children in the place they interacted with government policy most, the schools. It was not a new fight – the schools had been politically contentious institutions since the rise of compulsory education in the early 20th century – but with Brown v. Board those fights were increasingly defined by race, as black (and to a certain extent Hispanic and Asian) parents leveraged the ruling to gain equal access to quality education, while white parents in both the North and South sought ways to escape the ruling’s reach.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board, the combination of massive resistance and growing residential segregation has rolled back the decision's achievements. In a must-read analysis of modern segregation in the Atlantic, Nikole Hannah-Jones reports, “In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools, according to an analysis by ProPublica.”

And make no mistake, this resegregation matters. Part of the evidence for the plaintiffs in Brown included the Clark doll study, an experiment from the early 1940s that showed segregation damaged the self-esteem of black children as young as six and seven. The very act of being separate had taught these children that they were worth less. Similar studies conducted in recent years found the same results. Segregation doesn’t need to be written into law to have damaging effects. Indeed, the lack of legal codification makes it even more pernicious, because it makes it more difficult to undo.

Addressing the troubling resegregation of our schools, however difficult, must be a national priority. It must take the form not just of education funding but urban investment, poverty programs and affordable housing. It must mean a recommitment not just from Congress but the courts, both of which have withdrawn from protecting equal education in recent years. Yet protect it they must, because it is a core element of our national creed. Education is the bedrock of a democratic society. When equal access to quality education is denied, equal citizenship is denied as well.

This article originally appeared in US News & World Report