Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 8, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Lasting Legacy of Brown
University of South Carolina Upstate:
A Model of Excellence and Diversity
Fifty Years after Brown v. Board of Education: Reflections from an Activist-Administrator
Faculty Involvement
A Search for Deep Diversity in the Communication Classroom
Making Diversity News
The 1954 Brown Decision: Fueling the Torch of Liberation for Asian Pacific Americans
Brown v. Board’s Legacy and Contemporary Black Higher Education
Student Leaders Reflect on the Legacy of Brown
The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice: Education and Empowerment for an Engaged Citizenry
Diversity at Middlesex Community College
Books on Brown v. Board of Education

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.

Charlie Nelms

Charlie Nelms

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 decision.

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.

Making Progress

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.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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