Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Impact of Brown

BOND: Mr. Mayor, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision in 1954, and I know you were only three years old when it happened, so —

WILLIAMS: I wasn't following it that close.

BOND: — you may not be able to answer the first question we've asked everybody. What did it mean to you at the time of the decision? I imagine it meant nothing.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely nothing.

BOND: What has it turned out to mean for you as you became older? You're attending integrated Catholic schools in Los Angeles. What impact, if any, did it have on you as a young man, a high school kid?

WILLIAMS: As a high schooler, I went to a Jesuit school, a very, very good Jesuit school in L.A. called Loyola High School. And my brother and I and our friends from our local parish were probably the only African Americans in the school at the time. There were probably only about ten or twelve of us. And so certainly as time went on, it had an impact on day-to-day life for us in Los Angeles. I mean, I look at Brown v. Board of Education as a statement of the American vision of equality, you know. So there was a first statement of equality that we really didn't do anything about or even talk about for about seventy years in the Declaration of Independence and then Abraham Lincoln came along with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. There was a re-statement of the vision of equality and then we came along. The Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court restated the vision, so it was a statement of a vision and we as a society have struggled to try to achieve it.

BOND: Looking back on it from your perspective today as the mayor of the nation's capital, what has it turned out to mean? What has Brown meant in public education, looking at the District schools, at schools around the country? You talk about this statement of equality. Have we lived up to that?

WILLIAMS: Well, it was a statement of a vision, but you know, it was very fascinating reading some of the — at the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, I read some of my — he was my law professor — Charles Ogletree's book and Derrick Bell has written about it and I wouldn't go so far as, for example, as Professor Bell and say that there was a conscious decision of Brown v. Board to actually subvert integration by the decision itself. I'm one of these believers that if there's a kind of innocent explanation and a conspiracy explanation, it's probably more innocence and a mission in negligence if anything than actual conspiracy, but I do believe —

I do agree with them and I think most observers would have to agree that if you actually look at the impact on our schools today, in many instances, it's had a limited impact, especially when you differentiate by class. So the higher your class, the more impact it's had, in that it actually has resulted in integration. The lower you go down on the economic scale, the more segregated you remain after all these years, so the District schools right now —

You know, I've talked to you about this: we have the most educated population in the country — 37 percent struggling with third grade literacy. The richest population in the country, highest concentration or it used to be — I don't know, it may still be, the highest concentration of poverty. And a startling statistic — the white kids in the District of Columbia are some of the best scoring kids in the United States. African American kids, some of the worst performers in the United States. So, limited impact of Brown v. Board of Education right here on a day-to-day basis, certainly. That's why I call it a statement of a vision but in terms of practical reality and impact, [we] haven't seen it.