Nostalgia For What's Been Lost Since 'Brown V. Board' : Code Switch No one wants to return to the system of American apartheid. Public education, with its glaring inequities, is a reminder of all the work left undone.
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Nostalgia For What's Been Lost Since 'Brown V. Board'

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Nostalgia For What's Been Lost Since 'Brown V. Board'

Nostalgia For What's Been Lost Since 'Brown V. Board'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Today is the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a historic Supreme Court judgment that struck down school segregation when it overturned the doctrine of separate but equal.

Last night, Michelle Obama spoke in Topeka, Kan., the city in which the Brown case originated. It is one of many ceremonies around the country to celebrate the history of a legal milestone; how far we've come as a society, how far we have left to go.


MICHELLE OBAMA: Now, laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but nothing in the Constitution says we have to eat together in the lunch room or live together in the same neighborhoods. There is no court case against believing in stereotypes, or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny. So the answers to many of our challenges today can't necessarily be found in our laws. These changes also need to take place in our hearts and in our minds.

SIMON: As many look to the future, some black Americans are looking to the past; sometimes even with nostalgia, at the benefits of all-black communities and schools during segregation. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, from our Code Switch team, has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Mrs. Shirley Grant grew up in Macon - Missouri, not Georgia. And she can still remember how frustrating it was to pass one school practically in her backyard, to go to another one.

SHIRLEY GRANT: I was born on the corner of Union and Jefferson, which is two blocks from the school, where the school is now. I could not attend that school because I was black. So I had to walk across town to Dumas School, and go to school there.

BATES: Mrs. Grant shared that memory with KTVO-TV in Kirkland, Mo. a few years ago. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: KTVO is in Kirksville, Mo.] Carmen Fields, a media consultant in Boston, grew up in Tulsa, Okla. Decades later, she remembers the amenities her self-sufficient community maintained in her 1950s childhood.

CARMEN FIELDS: We had our own grocery stores. We had black doctors, lawyers, dentists, hotel, movie theaters, shoe-repair men, our own segregated Y.

BATES: It was a community, Fields says, where she felt supported and welcomed and where, because local colleges refused to hire black professors, her education in segregated schools was never substandard.

FIELDS: Some of our teachers were Ph.D.s or Ph.D. candidates who were denied opportunities in local colleges and universities. So we had the best of the best - the talented tenth, if you will - and they expected the best of us.

BATES: Fields admits to nostalgia from time to time for that kind of cultural cushion. Brenda Stevenson teaches history at UCLA, and says she understands some blacks' wistful look back at a more supportive time.

BRENDA STEVENSON: There is a sense - I know in Southern California - that black children are not educated well. The people feel that way. And I think that's where the nostalgia comes in.

BATES: Stevenson says many of the children currently in LA schools are the descendents of Southerners who migrated north and west to escape segregation, but who miss the closeness that came from a group forced to live together because of their race. No one wants to go back to the system of American apartheid that forbade blacks to vote or in some cases, own property or use public facilities their taxes paid for.

That era was powerfully captured in "Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored," a film of writer Clifton Taulbert's memoir that chronicled his youth in segregated Mississippi. In this scene, great-grandfather Poppa - played by Al Freeman Jr. - gently gives 5-year-old Cliff a lesson that could save his life.


AL FREEMAN JR.: (As Poppa) This is a W. That's the first letter of the word white. Now when you see this - whether it's on a door or a sign or a water fountain - you don't use it. Now, this is the letter C. This is the first letter of the word colored. Now, that's what you look for, hmm? That's what you use.

BATES: Michelle Boyd, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, says people shouldn't confuse the longing for the good part of the bad old days with a wish to go back to segregated life. This nostalgia, she says, means something else.

MICHELLE BOYD: This is an expression of disappointment in the limits of desegregation.

BATES: Desegregation is not the same as integration. And while there is open access to public facilities - everything from bathrooms to libraries - it doesn't mean that discrimination has ended. Neither, says UCLA's Brenda Stevenson, does the fact that Americans elected a black president twice.

STEVENSON: In this, quote-unquote, "post-racial society," what African-Americans, I believe, feel is that it's not post-racial. We're still evolving as a society in which race is extremely important and has differential impact on different groups.

BATES: Michelle Boyd says public education, with all its inequities, has been a glaring example of work that still needs to be done.

BOYD: The ways that discrimination - racial discrimination and racism still show up in the daily lives of people who have to send their kids to public school, for example, makes it easy to look longingly back into the past.

BATES: A past that desegregation was supposed to overcome and despite considerable progress, hasn't managed to yet.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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