Fifty Years after Brown v. Board
of Education: Reflections
from an Activist-Administrator
By Charlie Nelms, vice president for institutional
development and student affairs, Indiana University.
The following article was developed from a speech delivered
by Dr. Nelms at the Gary, Indiana, NAACP Life Membership
Dinner, May 14, 2004. Printed with permission.
The Brown decision was not really about integration;
it was about equality of opportunity without regard
to race. While the case centered on education, it touched
every sphere of American society. I challenge our schools
and colleges, public libraries and churches, civic groups
and social clubs to sponsor a series of public forums
on the continuing significance of the Brown
For me, Brown was not just a legal case.
It was a lived experience. Growing up in the Delta region
of Arkansas, one of the poorest and most segregated
regions in America, I drank from the “colored
only” water fountain. I rode in the back of the
bus. I used the “colored only” bathroom.
I walked the dirt and gravel roads to a one-room, all-black,
poorly funded public school. At the undergraduate level,
the historically black college, Arkansas AM&N College,
was the only option available to me.
I have found a hundred ways in which not much has changed since Brown
v. Board, and a hundred more ways in which our
society and our educational system are profoundly different.
First, the good news: this former Arkansas farm boy
recently returned from the University of Michigan’s
commencement, where he proudly watched his only child
receive a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree. That could
not have happened without Brown. In April,
I sat with pride on the Indiana University platform
when we celebrated the inauguration, right in the heart
of what used to be Ku Klux Klan territory, of the first
black president of Indiana University, Adam Herbert.
That certainly could not have happened without Brown.
Clearly, most African Americans have gone further in their lives and most
of their children have achieved more than would have
been possible without Brown. We should certainly
celebrate these victories; yet the Brown v. Board
of Education case was about so much more than just
desegregating American education. The Brown
decision delivered a mortal blow against the legally
sanctioned racial apartheid and discrimination that
permeated American society.
Standing Up for Change
There is one thing I have learned in my lifetime as
a social activist and university administrator: what
we are able to do or not do is seldom a matter of money;
it is almost always a matter of will. Beyond that, what
must we do? First and foremost, we must raise our expectations
about what students can, should, and must learn. The
research is clear. Most people will perform to meet
preexisting expectations—whether those expectations
are high or low. One of the most damaging aspects of
poor schools or underprivileged schools is that most
of the time hardly anything is expected, so very little
happens. If we do not expect great things from our children,
we will raise a generation that is valueless, visionless,
and ultimately voiceless.
Ignorance is the most serious threat to democracy.
We should serve as role models and commit our money,
our time, and our talents to our communities. If you,
like me, have been economically fortunate enough to
live a comfortable life, do not hesitate to give back
to your community. This is the least we can do to usher
in the changes that might help fulfill the promise of
Brown and raise the potential and performance
of future generations of college students and citizens.