Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the '54 Brown decision?

CHAMBERS: I was in high school in Montgomery County. And we paused in a class and all of us rejoiced.

BOND: A teacher made an announcement?

CHAMBERS: A teacher made an announcement. And we were all extremely happy, because we understood the decision freed all black people.

BOND: You understood that?

CHAMBERS: That's what the teacher was telling us.

BOND: Okay. Did you understand then that this was something that would happen like that, or when would it happen?

CHAMBERS: I think all of us did. I think, I know at my school we thought this was something that would be immediate. That the court had directed that there would be no more forced segregation. But we didn't really step back and think about what that would mean. We were in our little school. White students were across town in their little school. We didn't think about whether it meant that our school would be closed and we would be shipped there or vice versa. All we knew was that the court had said no more discrimination.

BOND: So you thought about it, if I can, in an abstract way, rather than in a concrete way. It was something wonderful and good, but it was abstract, not real. When did it become more real?

CHAMBERS: In terms of timing, in North Carolina, you know, we started with the Pearsall plan and the opposition to integration and the efforts by the then governor to ban implementation of Brown among others. We, in those debates, which began I guess shortly after the decision, appreciated that it was much more to implementing that decision than we had originally thought. And so we saw three or four years – or even more in some instances – that we had a decision out there that we thought was going to free us. And yet, a lot of barriers that would make it impossible for that to happen. So if you are looking for a time period, I would guess that, gee, it would have been '54 to '62 or '63.

BOND: Now, were these governor's actions in delaying tactics? Did you think of them as they are contemporarily happening as simply delays or as barriers that could not be overcome?

CHAMBERS: Well, I viewed them as barriers that – I guess we always had some faith that things would eventually be removed. But we knew that they would be there for a long time and we had to continue to fight to get them removed.

BOND: So you were always optimistic. Cautiously optimistic?

CHAMBERS: Cautiously optimistic.

BOND: Ever completely despondent?

CHAMBERS: No. Not in the sense that we thought that it would never happen. We were despondent in the fact that our leadership had taken this kind of position and would bar us and other black children from getting a better education.

BOND: So now we are fifty years past, almost fifty years past. Looking back – disappointed?

CHAMBERS: Yes, I'm disappointed. I'm just as disappointed with that as I am with the fact that we still are wrestling with the issue of race. I have talked with a number of people about how they felt in '54 with the decision. And I don't think that I'm unusual or that our class members were unusual. I watched, I read Bob Carter's comments. Thurgood's comments. Jack's. There was this real dilemma of how do you enforce that decision. And I think that Thurgood and Bob thought that it would happen immediately, that would be some edict that you must now integrate the schools. Integrate them how wasn't clear. And I don't think anyone thought that it would be that long in achieving "integration," however it was defined. Even today I am not certain if people have agreement on what Brown meant in the sense of how you or whether you integrate the schools.

But there was this hope that it meant that black people would now have a chance to do whatever they wanted to do in order to improve conditions in life. We have gone through these struggles. It has been frustrating and really disappointing and bitter. And looking back I don't think that black people are just angry with everybody else because of it. They realize that it's part of the American system. But they are disappointed that they really have to go through this kind of process. On the other hand, in today's milieu people like to assume that we are now free, that we have removed all the barriers. And all the segregated schools are now integrated. And that is another frustrating problem for us to address.

BOND: I wonder if in some ways, Swann, the Swann case in which you are intimately involved, 100 times more so than Brown – which has to be an abstract to you in North Carolina – if the Swann case is up and down – that is, achieving this great Supreme Court victory and then years later having seen it chipped and chipped and chipped away – if that doesn't lead if not to some kind of cynicism, at least to some kind of disappointment?

CHAMBERS: Well, you know, I – first of all, Swann has not been completely reversed. We had a decision that said that "You stop doing the bussing whatever assignments based on race." And I doubt seriously if that is going to be the final disposition of that case. There is a lot of opposition in the community to it. So much so that I think that even if it became the final word, the board would insist on something else. Because one thing that has grown out of Swann is that people appreciate the advantages of an integrated school system. And they will insist on that kind of system whatever the court may be talking about. But I also think that the court will appreciate the need for diversity in education and would likely modify that decision as well.

BOND: You are awfully optimistic about that.

CHAMBERS: I'm optimistic. I was really impressed with the way black and white people supported that decision and supported integration of the Charlotte schools. Obviously there was some opposition by both black and whites. But the vast majority of them really thought it was better, far better to have integrated schools than what we had had previously. And I think the vast majority would like to keep that.

BOND: Well, you know, it's one thing to have community support for this ideal and another thing to convince the Supreme Court of this ideal. Are you equally as optimistic?

CHAMBERS: Yes. Yes, I am. You know I watch the Court with this anti-affirmative action approach and unfortunately I don't think the Court has really thought about what it's saying. And I think that we have begun already to see some retrenchment or modification in what the Court has been doing. A Court saying that you can't use race? You've got to be crazy. And if you can use race, then you can begin doing a lot of the things that we were doing previously. I watched with the university systems talking about more affirmative action practices in higher ed. And then as you begin to eliminate a number of black students, no university can afford to have an all-white student body, particularly in those state supported. And I don't think that any private university would want to have an all-white student body. And if you can't have, then you really got to think about race and attracting other students. And they are doing it.

You know, this Texas thing about the top ten percent of a high school class is just a substitute for affirmative action. California moving to something similar, is again a substitute. And so you are going to have to have race as a factor. And I think the Court is going to appreciate that and will likely modify. And I don't care – now I know that there are some people who are going to point to the Supreme Court and not want to see Brown implemented and would likely reverse Brown if they could. But I think that the good people on the Court, the good will people, would want to see the country advance and would want to see us maintain some diversity in the school system.

BOND: As I started to explore whether or not we are going to have a majority of good will people, but that is something at the moment which is just unknown.