Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Vernon Jordan, thank you for spending this time with us. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision in 1954. You were nineteen years old and a college sophomore?

JORDAN: Freshman.

BOND: -- freshman when the decision -- what did this -- when you heard the news, what did this mean to you?

JORDAN: It was an affirmation of what I heard in speeches from A.T. Walden to Thurgood Marshall and local NAACP meetings that one day we will win. It was -- it was -- I remember A.T. [Austin Thomas] Walden speaking at my church at vesper service, talking about segregation saying, "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you." And it was -- it was a feeling that Mr. Walden was right. I was a freshman at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. I was the only black in my class. There were only five us in the student body. And it was also a reaffirmation that I was in the right place doing the right thing. Interestingly, my classmates at that time, they didn't quite know what it meant. And so I became the teacher, and to say this is overturning fifty years of Plessy v. Ferguson, which was a Supreme Court approval in much the same way that Dred Scott was of a separate, but unequal existence, for black people and much the same way that Dred Scott said that a black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. So it was -- it was progress. It was nine men on the highest court of the land affirming black aspirations and black hope for their future.

BOND: Now at the time when you heard about this and you have to interpret it for your white classmates, what did you think it would mean? What did you think Brown would -- what effect would it have?

JORDAN: I don't think I got to that point. What it was, it was a feeling that we needed this declaration from the highest court in the land that segregation was inherently unequal. And at that time I didn't give much thought to what the arguments would be in Aaron v. Cooper or that we would get concepts like with all deliberate speed or that the state of Virginia would be leading the South in massive resistance efforts or that governors would be standing in the doorway. And that did not occur to me at that time. It was -- it was about victory. And at the moment of celebration, there's not much thought about implementation. There was a great story about one reaction that I heard subsequent, about a great preacher who was at Dexter Avenue Church before Martin.

BOND: Vernon Johns.

JORDAN: Vernon Johns. And the story's told that Vernon Johns, in Virginia, in Prince Edward County, and another preacher at the time of the Supreme Court announcement were driving down a Virginia highway and the news came over the radio. And Dr. Vernon Johns pulled to the side of the road, and he and the preacher got out of the car and went around to the front of the car and kneeled at the bumper and prayed. And somehow that symbolizes for me what -- how black people reacted. That this distinguished theologian, this great preacher whom I heard as a student at Howard University, when the Supreme Court decision comes down, his instinct, his first thought is to pull to the side of the road and use the bumper as an altar and to give a prayer of thanksgiving. And I think that, too, was my reaction, that justice is being done and it's a good thing.

BOND: Now looking back from the advantage point of almost fifty years, what has Brown meant?

JORDAN: Brown helped change America. Brown laid the foundation for everything that was to happen after that, from Rosa Parks who, the next year, sat down on the bus, from the time that the students sat down in Greensboro on February 1st, 1961, from the time that you and Ben Brown and others, Lonnie King in Atlanta, led students at the Langley [...] Center in protest. Brown gave a framework for that.