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The old lions of the civil rights movement who won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in the very different America of 1954 gathered last week in a spacious lecture hall at Columbia Law School. Jack Greenberg was there, and Robert L. Carter, too, senior U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of New York — and Judge Louis H. Pollak of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, and Cecilia Marshall, widow of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. By video hook-up, 96-year-old civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill in Virginia added his thoughts, as did Constance Baker Motley, former Southern District judge, from her Caribbean home in Nevis. Recollections of Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended government-sanctioned racial segregation in public schools, were of history writ large. Yet the audience was small, and mostly middle-aged. But then came Chanler Langham with a question for today. “As you can see, there are not enough [young] people here who think it matters,” said Langham, 27, a third-year Columbia Law student and activist in the Northeast Black Law Students Association. “How can we convince our fellow black students that the fight for Brown is not over?” The question was hardly an idle one. A heavy irony of the day was noted by Ted Shaw, deputy director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, co-sponsor with Columbia Law of a monthlong observance of the 50th anniversary of Brown. Before arriving at the seminar, Shaw and Marshall attended a dedication of Thurgood Marshall Academy, the first new construction for public high school students in Harlem in a half-century. “We’re proud of [the academy],” said Shaw. “But it’s essentially a segregated school. So we still have a lot of work to do.” Earlier, too, the talk was of battles yet to be won against subtler forms of racism. After successfully arguing one of the cases constituting Brown before the U.S. Supreme Court, and after success as trial counsel in three school desegregation cases leading to Brown, “The problem [of discrimination] wasn’t over,” said Judge Carter, who, like thousands of black veterans subjected to racism in the ranks flocked to the NAACP after World War II. The problem developed less blatant expression, said Carter, though it remains the same in essence. “The problem,” as he defined it, “is white supremacy.” “We’re a country that in a curious way is still divided,” said Greenberg, a Columbia Law professor who likewise argued one of the Brown cases before the Supreme Court. After ticking off a laundry list of black CEOs at major U.S. corporations, he said, “[B]lack incomes are about 60 per cent of white incomes.” “White folks always talk about the rule of law, but only with respect to those laws that help them,” said Hill, a black civil rights litigator who prevailed in Davis v. Prince Edward County Schools, a Virginia case that became part of the Brown consolidation. “Not all white folks. They’re divided.” “While it’s good to pause and say we made a good advance, we ought to continue struggling in this country — in this country that fought Nazism,” said Judge Weinstein, who as a young lawyer wrote briefs in Brown. “We are now the nation that makes judges send people to prison for horrible lengths of time — principally African Americans, breaking up their families. “New York City [has] the most segregated or close to the most segregated school district in America,” Weinstein added. “We have not been able to establish a sense that [ Brown] belongs to us [as] a beautiful butterfly of equality and freedom.” Judge Motley recalled a 1979 observation of Brown‘s 25th anniversary, held at an Alabama university campus. A white student who escorted her from the airport asked the judge exactly what had brought her from New York to Alabama. When she said the words, “Brown versus Board of Education,” the white student wondered, “What’s that?” Worse, Motley recalled days on the bench in New York when black law students would come to observe a presiding black federal judge. Later in chambers, she said, she would talk of Brown with the students, “and I’d get blank faces.” Elise C. Boddie, 35, a litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, analyzed such historical ignorance in an interview after the Columbia Law seminar. She suggested, “We romanticize the past, we tend to think there were always thousands of people involved in the front lines [of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and '60s]. That was true of the marches, but it’s always been a critical band of dedicated [young lawyers] who’ve born the brunt of the real work. “The spirit of [Langham's] question is right,” said Boddie, who suggested that turnout among students at the seminar was sparse because they simply did not know the historical importance of the participants. “There is a rise in re-segregation in this country, and challenges to affirmative action. Minority attorneys and students of color must read up on their history,” said Boddie, who is black. “They must really understand the importance of Brown and that the struggle is ongoing. If you’re not vigilant about protecting your rights, they will be taken away — in a heartbeat.” Dennis Parker, the new chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the New York attorney general’s office, is of an age between Langham and the Brown lawyers at last week’s seminar. As a black litigator for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1989 until last year, he worked on many of the follow-up school desegregation cases that flooded state courts in the south in the wake of Brown, which uniquely did not direct the nation’s school administrators to conform to the new standard of desegregation forthwith. “I worked on cases that were older than me,” said Parker, 48. In the context of conversations with parents of black students who had suffered discrimination, “It wasn’t some abstract this-happened-40-years-ago talk, they talked about how special education [today] is used and misused, how schools with gifted and talented programs are overwhelmingly white versus [regular] schools that are overwhelmingly minority. “There is still the relevant question of psychic cost to minority students,” said Parker. With reference to the physical conditions of many schools in black neighborhoods, he added, “They have to wonder, How am I being valued if I’m in a classroom that’s in a closet?” Marshall offered encouragement to Langham and those minority law students who did show up last Monday. “Fifty years ago, there was only one black lawyer in most southern states,” she said. “Today, we have 10,000 black law students.” Likewise, Judge Pollak encouraged Langham toward political mobilization. “Find legislators who are responsive,” he said. “That’s part of being a lawyer.” Ellen Chapnick, dean of social justice initiatives at Columbia Law, was pleased by Langham’s participation. “If the event did not provoke that question,” she said, “it would have been a failure.” Chapnick was further pleased when a young black woman in her first year of studies at Columbia Law said of the lions she came to see, “I was looking at the heroes of my history.”

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