Forum in Boyle courtroom will discuss historic ruling that integrated schools

May 09, 2004|GARY MOYERS

The United States Supreme Court made segregated schools the law of the land with its Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. That ruling established two school systems - one for whites, one for blacks.

Fifty years ago on May 17, 1954, that decision was overturned by the momentous Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling that mandated the integration of the public school system.

To mark the anniversary of the decision, called one of the Supreme Court's landmark rulings by the American Bar Association, a Brown vs. Board forum is planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Boyle County Circuit Courtroom. The event is free and open to the public.

"This was spearheaded by James Atkins," said Boyle County Attorney Richard Campbell. "It was his idea that we should mark the occasion, and after committee meetings we determined this panel discussion would be a appropriate method. Brown v. Board was probably the land-mark decision of the 20th century, and it certainly deserves our attention today."


The forum, moderated by Centre College Law Society president Amanda Butler, will feature panelists who will discuss and answer questions about their experiences in 1954, when school integration became the law of the land.

The panelists

Panelists include Helen Fisher Frye, a retired teacher who taught in both segregated and integrated schools in the Danville school system and who served as president of Danville's NAACP chapter; Bobby Trumbo, a current Danville teacher who was a student in both systems; Ken Snowden, principal of Bate Middle School at the time of integration; Judge Pierce Lively, a retired judge from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who also served as president of Bate's PTO; Bob Rowland, current Danville superintendent; and Pam Rogers, current Boyle County superintendent.

The committee, with the cooperation of Boyle County lawyers, is also making available to schools and groups speakers and educational materials about Brown v. Board. David Davis, assessment coordinator for the Danville school system, said many materials are available from the committee, and throughout the summer, other educational opportunities will be available.

Dan Stroup, a constitutional law professor at Centre College, said Danville has unique ties to both Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board.

"Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the dissent for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, and he was a Centre College alumnus," said Stroup, who also serves on the commemoration committee. "Then in 1952, when Brown v. Board was first argued, Justice Fred Vinson was on the court. Vinson, of course, is also a Centre alumnus."

Harlan's dissent in 1896 played a large role in the Brown v. Board decision, Campbell said.

"His dissent formed the foundation for the Court's decision in Brown v. Board 58 years later," said Campbell. "His words were so eloquently written, and so deeply based on his interpretation of the Constitution, that they have profound meaning today, over 100 years later."

Harlan graduated from Centre in 1850

Harlan, who graduated from Centre in 1850, was the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson. An excerpt from his dissent reads, "Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. ... The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana."

Vinson, who graduated from Centre in 1909 and its law school in 1911, was chief justice for the court when it heard Brown v. Board in 1952, but died of a heart attack before a decision could be rendered. He had voted with the majority in 1950 when the court ruled that the University of Texas law school must admit Herman Marion Sweatt, a black man, under the government's Equal Protection Clause.

Upon Vinson's death, Earl Warren was elevated to chief justice, and he is credited with spearheading the decision in 1954 that led to the implementation of integrated schools, "with all due speed and dispatch."

"It has always been a great source of pride for me to teach at the same school that graduated Harlan and Vinson," said Stroup. "Brown v. Board has been called one of the most important decisions ever made by the Supreme Court, and to think that Centre played such a role is inspiring."

The high court ruled unanimously in 1954 to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, and Stroup said the panel will examine the decision in three parts.

"First, Amanda (Butler) will direct a series of questions to each of the panelists about their particular experiences at the time of the decision," he said. "Then the panelists who were involved will share their personal reminiscences, and finally, we'll discuss current Brown today - challenges remaining, how far we've come, how far we've yet to go."

Stroup said it is important for the current generation to look back and scrutinize cases like Brown v. Board.

"It is good to mark events like these, to introduce children to how things became the way they are," he said. "We need to reflect on where we came from and how the events affect our current perspectives. Are we where we need to be? What do we have to do to get there? Sometimes, it takes a look back to focus attention on what's ahead."

Central Kentucky News Articles