Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Dr. Height, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for doing this.

HEIGHT: Glad to be here.

BOND: I want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. When you first heard that the Supreme Court had eliminated segregation in schools, what did you think?

HEIGHT: Well, I just thought we had a hit a new high. I was very excited and I suppose, like most people, just really rejoiced that we'd reached that point.

BOND: When you heard about it, what did you think then it would mean over time?

HEIGHT: Well, I really thought it would mean that our schools would be open, that children would be able to go to all schools, doors would be open. I thought it was the end of segregation, that's really what I thought.

BOND: And what has it turned out to mean, so far as you're concerned?

HEIGHT: Well, it's been very disappointing. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and -- it's where, of course, there were no Negro teachers -- and I came to appreciate what it meant to be in a classroom with students, you know, where we were all different races, predominantly children who were foreign-born, however. And it was a very small group of us who were colored. But I thought that here, at last, we have something like that. Because one of the things that I value is what it meant to me to grow up in a school where I had equal chance, I felt, to do whatever I wanted to do, to become something, and that I thought this is what now we had.

It was disappointing to find that immediately there became all of these counter-activities, efforts to not only not move forward, but to push us backwards. And I thought that resistance in itself was so disturbing because it confused the picture, and the -- really, the action was more like this was about bussing and not about school. It was not about openness, but it was about trying to get new privilege to people who didn't deserve it. And that I thought was very detrimental, not just to the children and parents who were involved, but I think to the society.

BOND: Now, you enjoyed an integrated education.


BOND: So in that sense you enjoyed what Brown might have meant?

HEIGHT: That's right. And that's what I thought of now, because -- and I have -- until I was an adult, I had never had a Negro teacher, and so my teachers were interested in me, the parents, boys and girls, all shared things together, and I thought, "Well, this is what school ought to be like." And I thought at last we had it.

BOND: Well, the decision didn't have an effect on your education, but what has it meant to you in the years since '54? How did it affect you?

HEIGHT: Well, what it has done for me, it has made me realize that I had to work harder to try to make its objectives realized. I think it has been a -- it gave a new base, however, for working, because at least we had a way of saying segregation is -- and there is no such thing as "separate and equal." And I think the elimination of that laid the base for all the work that we could do. Until then I think we were working hard, but we were really up against something that was impossible, because segregation was legal. And I think to take that off gave us a base for really working.

BOND: Was this kind of like a stamp of approval of the work you had been doing up to that point, and would do afterward?

HEIGHT: Yes, it gave you a sense that we're on the right track. In fact, I grew up, and even in my religious experience, working with people of different religious backgrounds, with the feeling of the importance of openness and how much each one of us contributes to the other, that there's no superior, no inferior.