Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Dr. Flake, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

FLAKE: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

BOND: I'm going to begin with some questions about the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Can you remember what you thought about it at the time? You must have been quite young.

FLAKE: I was nine years old at the time. But it was of such magnitude that my parents locked into it. Because they realized that here were their children taking a bus, going past white schools, out into the country essentially to a black school where there was this sense that we were obviously being educated, but why should we have to ride fourteen miles on a bus to do that? So I recall my father taking a position that – along with some of the neighbors in our community – that either we ought to have a school in our community or we ought to go to the white school. And on one morning when he took off from work, which was a shock because he was truly a workaholic and had to be to provide for a large family like ours. And the parents drove over to Recreation Acres, to that white school. And from that day on, there was a different attitude. They built a school in our community. And had it not been for Brown v. Board of Education, that just would not have happened.

BOND: Now, although you were nine years old, do you think you had larger expectations of Brown beyond your immediate situation? And did your parents have larger expectations beyond their own children?

FLAKE: I think – certainly. I think the coming together of those parents was clearly indicative of the fact that they dared to believe that there was something better, that there was something greater that their kids would be able to do. For me personally, it did not resonate as much then as it did later on as I began to do my assessment, by the time I got into college, of really, what does it mean to have a good education? And where are we going to be by the time I become an adult and begin to raise my family? And I think the impact then of Brown v. Board of Education has started to take some negative tone with me. Because I could see the results of a lot of my colleagues in my age category who were not benefiting. Even though we had access to better – what we considered to be better – educational opportunities. Because we saw many of those principals and teachers that had taught us while we were segregated who were not even a part of education any longer. Because they shut down schools. They turned my high school into a vocational school. And we saw that happen throughout. And then we began to wonder if, in fact, that even the issue of integration was a valuable one, in that we were losing a part of ourselves in that, which represented the essence of our history, was no longer what it had been in the past.

BOND: That's perfect for the next question. Looking back, it's almost fifty years now – what has it turned out to mean? Your parents were hopeful. You were hopeful. Great promise here. What has it turned out to mean?

FLAKE: Well, one of the things I did as we came to the turn of the century was try to do a retrospective on the things that we thought were meaningful at certain junctures in my life and what I expected to have happened by the turn of the century. And one of my greatest disappointments is the reality that the majority of minority students are not getting the kind of education that I think was the intention of Brown v. Board of Education. And certainly was the dream and hope of parents like mine who assumed that if they got into the proper environment, they would be educated. There was this sense, you know, that if you put black kids and white kids together, it would work. The tragedy of it is that the buses still only ran one way. We took black kids out of their communities into white communities, but rarely did the buses come back. So that when you look at Ernie Green and that group from the Little Rock Seven and Central High School, what you realize is that beyond them, there was a real reversal in terms of giving a complete access to all of that was available for other students to African-American students. And even as we move to middle-class status, the reality became many of our kids, even in those white schools, were at the back of the classroom or were not getting the kind of education that we thought this whole integration process would bring about. That by no means suggests that I don't believe that we have to be an integrated society. But a reality that I think we lost some benefits that we really had gained in segregation.

BOND: Again, looking back at it, do you put the blame for the loss of black teachers, the loss of black institutions, the erasure of memory of black achievement, all of this happening as the result of Brown, is the blame on Brown or the implementation of Brown? And who's to blame for the implementation?

FLAKE: Yeah, I think the blame clearly is on the implementation of Brown. I mean, its intent was clearly a pure one. But I think that the impurity came about by virtue of persons who had control and power within Boards of Education and systems throughout this country who made a determination that in order for them to implement it, it meant that they had to continue to maintain their power. And maintaining that power meant that if we're going to integrate, obviously we're not going to have a disintegration as it relates to white schools or white teachers or white principals. And therefore, those who would suffer would be those who would had by them been classified as not having competency. Yet, in spite of what they considered to be their lack, they were able to take kids who came off the cotton fields, kids who did not have basic parents who could educate them, who were able to make some of the finest graduates and send them to college and bring them out as professionals in a way that we're not doing today.