Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown v. Board of Education

BOND: Dr. Mary Berry, thank you for joining us in Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for being here.

BERRY: Thank you for having me.

BOND: Well, it’s our pleasure. I want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board. What did it mean to you when you first heard that the Supreme Court had made this ruling?

BERRY: I heard it on the day that I was walking downtown in Nashville with my high school teacher who was for all my life my best friend until she died and she and I were looking for some material for costumes for the high school play at the end of the— We were graduating that year and we saw the headline on the newspaper. I hadn’t seen the paper that morning, and it said, you know, Supreme Court says segregation over, illegal, something like that, and I said, oh, my goodness, Mrs. Hawkins, isn’t that wonderful? It means that next year all the children will be going to school together and she said, not so fast, Mary Frances, not so fast, and I thought it meant that if the schools were desegregated that everybody would just start going to the same schools and that was the end of segregation but, of course, in talking to not only her but everybody else in Nashville and my family, people said nothing’s going to happen overnight. You can forget that and they were right and I was wrong.

BOND: Now, what has it turned out to mean, despite this optimism you had as a young woman, what has it turned out to mean?

BERRY: Well, what Brown has meant depends on what you think Brown was supposed to do. Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers thought that the case would provide a basis for equal opportunity for black kids and that one way to do that was to desegregate the schools since they had tried equalizing them and that didn’t work and it wasn’t about, as Clarence Thomas says, a black child has to sit next to a white child to learn but it was about if we can find the resources, we can deal with the tangible and the intangible factors, maybe we can improve the education of black kids without doing harm to anybody else’s education. That’s what I think what Brown was supposed to mean.

Now, what is has meant is the schools, of course, have not been desegregated. I mean, two-thirds of black kids go to racially isolated schools. Three-fourths of Latinos kids do so and most white kids go to racially isolated schools. It has improved the quality of education for some people but by and large it has not for those who’ve been left behind which is why we keep working on it.

Brown also is something else. It became immediately an icon, a symbol, of America’s commitment to justice, to racial justice and to being the best of a multiracial democracy, so in the minds of many people, Brown stands for more than just segregation or desegregation. It stands for we made a commitment as Americans that we were going to change and that’s what Brown signaled.

BOND: Now, how did it impact you? Obviously you were a senior in high school when you heard about it. It didn’t affect your high school education.

BERRY: No, it didn’t.

BOND: But in the years since, how has it affected you?

BERRY: Well, in the years since— So I had the segregated education right through Brown. Then in college, I went to predominantly black institutions, first to Fisk and then to Howard, so it didn’t affect what I did there. It affected jobs that I had that I had— I had to work in order to put myself through college and there were some jobs that I was able to get that before relatives of mine were not able to and even though Brown— That’s what I mean when I say Brown was about schools but it was also about other things. For example, when I came to Washington and I was working at a hospital and I got an opportunity to work in the lab and they’d never had any black people working in the lab before. It was sort of like the ethos of what the kind of change that should take place, so then, of course, the overall change in American society, Brown leading up to the boycotts, the success of the Montgomery boycott, and then the whole civil rights movement naturally had an enormous impact on the kind of life I could lead and the kind of education I could get.