Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: Professor Charles Ogletree, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

OGLETREE: Pleasure to be here.

BOND: I want to begin with a couple of questions about Brown v. Board, and I know you were only three when the decision came down. Do you remember when you first became aware that there had been a court decision that ended segregation in schools? You're living in California, but when did you first have consciousness of this?

OGLETREE: Well, I was only two actually. I was born in 1952, and the decision was May 17th, 1954. It became apparent to me, as a young kid when I was entering elementary school, when I was five years old, and started noticing things like bussing. And the fact that instead of going to a school that was within walking distance, we would go somewhere else. I noticed my parents talking about it but not really seeming to be influenced by it. My mother was from Little Rock, Arkansas, my father from Birmingham, Alabama. So, therefore, existence and the pre-Brown era in America was that it didn't matter to them. Life had not changed. They had left the South, they had gone to California, and didn't see any hope for racial progress at the end of segregation.

It became even more apparent about Brown when I went to my elementary schools and all the children, even after Brown, in the '50s and early '60s. Almost every school I attended was all black and brown. There was occasionally a white student but someone who was poor.

Our community in Merced, California, was separated by railroads. I mean there really was a railroad track. And we were on the south side where the blacks and Hispanics -- Chicanos as we called them -- lived and a few Asian Americans and, invariably the whites, other than the poor whites, live on the north side of town. Everything about our community was divided by those railroad tracks -- the business opportunities, the high schools, the places that people went for recreation, the different sort of jobs you might pursue. There was a real demarcation at that railroad track. So, even though Brown wasn't discussed or debated in the house, its implications were clear even in California, even after 1954.

BOND: And you said that your parents had no expectation that it would make things better?


BOND: Their experience had taught them that change wouldn't occur?

OGLETREE: That's right. My father was born in the early 1900s in Birmingham, Alabama. And his existence was such that as a black man, he believed what the Dred Scott case said, that black people had no rights which whites were bound to respect. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade and left Alabama, actually never to return.

When he did share any thoughts about Alabama, they weren't pleasant thoughts, other than about his family. He talked about the police. He talked about the "eyeball rape," that a black man looking a white woman in the eye was a crime of eyeball rape. And there was a case, McQuirter v. State of Alabama, that actually had a doctrine along that line -- that a black man was accused of attempted assault of a white woman by looking at her, and not touching her, not in any way committing a sexual offense. And so the word spread -- you couldn't look at white women. And that was a phenomenon that affected my father his entire life. He really didn't look people in the eye, white people in the eye.

My mother grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. And her father grew up in Ozan, Arkansas, also born in the early 1900s, as was my grandmother. They had the same existence in the sense that slavery had ended in the fifty years before their birth, but they had relatives and friends who had been involved in slavery. They were in the middle of Jim Crow segregation. And the whole lifestyle was that you lived off the land. You didn't own anything, but that they knew you couldn't drink at water fountains because you were black. You couldn't eat at restaurants. You couldn't stay at a hotel. You couldn't get a job. You couldn't go to schools unless they were segregated. So, their entire life span was implicated by Brown. And even, even more from the fundamental ways, Julian, that I hadn't even thought about until recently -- they never voted. I mean, they were citizens. They paid their taxes. They worked hard, but they didn't have the ability as young adults, in their twenties or thirties or forties or fifties to cast a ballot.

Even though the one thing about our legal system was that anyone who was of age could vote. They knew about poll taxes and they knew about all the other barriers and burdens to participation. So, they knew that history. The good news is that, as much as they were pained by Brown and its aftermath and what preceded it, they never would place that burden on us. All they said is that "You must be educated. You must stay in school and trust us. If you get an education, life will lead to better opportunities for you than it has for us," without being bitter, or belaboring their own experiences.

BOND: But the very fact that they left Alabama and Arkansas and came to California suggets some kind of optimism and hope for a better life.

OGLETREE: That's exactly right. I mean the idea was, the word was, "Go west." That California didn't have slavery. California didn't have segregation. It was different from the South. And they had family members who'd gone out there and had found jobs. And they felt they struck it rich, which means they were lower working class.

BOND: Right.

OGLETREE: Right. That they had had a wage that they could live on for a week and provide for their family. But for my mother and father and grandparents, it was a new way of life, going to California. And they started in northern California, in Vallejo, California, and worked their way down to what we call the San Joaquin Valley. And they worked -- as did Cesar Chavez and the farm workers -- they worked as farmers. They lived in actually a camp called Red Top outside Chowchilla, near Merced. They live on the Baker ranch, and a couple of other ranchers owned by these white farmers who would hire black seasonal workers. And they would get a salary, but the salary would -- first of all, you'd take out for your rent, you'd take out for your food, you'd take out for the special provisions. And you might get a little change at the end of the month. But the idea was that you were really working to live.

BOND: Very much like the sharecroppers.

OGLETREE: That's exactly what they were. And this was supposed to be a Southern phenomenon. This is California in the 1940s and early '50s. It was the same. It didn't change. And that's why, for me, Brown is so significant because it was a demarcation and it helped an enormous number of our community members who saw the value of education. But it didn't change for those who had been disenfranchised before 1954, and for whom it was too late to see any realization of voting or educational opportunity or housing or other benefits that might have flowed from it.