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60 Years After Brown, Hurdles Remain For African-American Achievement


A statue of Thurgood Marshall, the attorney (and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) who successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case that ended school segregation.

CREDIT: Flickr/douglas.earl

For black students in Meridian, Miss., school was often the first step to prison, according to a letter from the Justice Department released recently.

In an investigation launched in December, the DOJ found that local government agencies were operating a school-to-prison pipeline, where it was not uncommon for black students to be pulled out of school and into the throes of the court system for run-of-the-mill infractions like "defiance."

The Justice Department has found the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services in violation of three constitutional amendments—the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth.

They department also indirectly gave credence to President Barack Obama's July 26 announcement of a White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which—buoyed by decades of research, demonstrated that black students still perform far below their white peers—sends the message that nearly 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, federal intervention is still required to ensure the road to educational excellence for African-Americans is paved.

The executive order states:

To reach the ambitious education goals we have set for our Nation, as well as to ensure equality of access and opportunity for all, we must provide the support that will enable African American students to improve their level of educational achievement through rigorous and well-rounded academic and support services that will prepare them for college, a career, and a lifetime of learning.

The president announced the initiative at the National Urban League's annual conference in New Orleans, which the NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous called a "bold and welcome step."

"For too long, the experience of far too many African American students in far too many places has been marred by school districts whose ongoing practices have failed our children," Jealous stated in a press release. "Be it in Mississippi or Manhattan, North Carolina or South L.A., the data has shown—and too many family's experiences have proven—that we still need the power of the Federal Government to ensure all our nation's children are treated fairly.”

The creation of federal commissions on civil rights issues has often been a harbinger for greater progress. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights originally set up in the Civil Rights Act of 1957 played a crucial role in the voting rights struggle that unfolded, and peaked nearly 47 years ago to the day, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The current initiative sets up an inter-agency group, with representatives from departments including Justice, Labor, and Defense, as well as an advisory commission. The advisory commission must include two representatives from the Board of Historical Black Colleges and Universities. The organization is named throughout the executive order as a crucial player in ensuring educational excellence. Those schools have been plagued by problems the executive order identifies as particularly rampant for the African-American community, like low retention rates. Both groups will help identify best practices for providing African American students with rigorous educations, and help create networks that implement those practices.

Grace Tatter is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @gracetatter.

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