Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Impact of Brown

BOND: Now, when the Brown decision occurred, even though you’re ten years old, do you recall thinking, well, in X number of years or in some period of time, these things will change? I know your mother — your parents told you this would not always be the status quo, but do you remember predicting to yourself or others that over some period of time, things will get better?

DAVIS: I don’t think I had a specific timeline in my mind, but I do know that I thought about a different moment, a different time. I was able to imagine what it might be like not having to be confined to segregated schools.

BOND: Now, looking back from today’s perspective, how has this turned out? What’s your feeling or your opinion about how the Brown victory in ’54 and the subsequent victories have played out in America?

DAVIS: That’s a very complicated question because, indeed, the Brown v. Board of Education victory was one of the most important legal victories in our recent history. And the desegregation of the schools however it has played out, has been important, but there’s a piece missing, and I think we tend to assume that civil rights or legal rights will accomplish all that needs to be accomplished in the quest for freedom. We don’t always think about the political, the economic, the larger social dimension there, and now, of course, we inhabit a society where schools are more segregated than ever before, particularly outside of the South, and we inhabit a society where schools for young, poor people of color, particularly poor black kids, are basically prep schools for prison. And so I think, you know — what I’d have to say is that each victory that we win, whether it be a legal victory or whether it be a victory, a political victory or a victory in the area of ideology, creates a new terrain for us to rethink the possibilities of the future. And so I see the Brown v. Board of Education victory as reconfiguring the terrain of our quest for freedom.

BOND: And, in fact, the army of justice regroups and chooses another fight. Would you characterize it that way? Or knows another fight is yet ahead?

DAVIS: Absolutely, absolutely. And sometimes we cannot even imagine the possible struggle until we’ve achieved victory in one area and then rather than resting which many people assume we do — because, of course, you win and it’s over — rather than what resting, we need to ask ourselves how does this change the possibilities of the future and what do we now know that we did not know then and what can we now imagine and struggle for.

BOND: But that’s not always immediately apparent, though. I think I can remember when Brown was decided, the discussion in my family and the assumption that over time — and we didn’t know what period of time — over time, these things would be swept away and we’d live in a different and better world and, of course — well, let me ask you another question. How has Brown, in retrospect, looking back over your life, how has it affected you? What’s different about for you because of Brown in ’54?

DAVIS: Well I would say that there’s differences that are both positive and negative, and not that I want to emphasize the negative, but I will begin by saying that in the process of desegregating the schools in Birmingham, Alabama, great damage was done to the existing structures of education. That is to say, there was a tendency, and I know this from my mother who complained a great deal about the reconfiguration of the schools, that the best black teachers were sent to the white schools and the worst white teachers were sent to the black schools, and so — the predominantly black schools, of course — and so in the final analysis, it was very difficult to recoup in that respect. Now, as an individual, I think I benefited greatly from this decision, although I’m not sure it was meant to benefit individuals per se —

BOND: Right.

DAVIS: — but rather to lift up communities.