By Rev. Jesse Jackson , Jr.
Chicago Defender Contributing Writer
“That decision changed the whole Western World because it began a new global frame of reference for equal protection.”
The elementary school closest to my home in Greenville, SC was just down the street from my house. The school had a lush lawn, tulips under the principal’s window, a shiny sliding board and a merry-go-round. I knew in my bones that was where I was going to attend first grade. I couldn’t wait for summer to end and class to begin.
When that day came, my mother took me by the hand and walked me right past that beautiful building and grounds.
“Momma we passed the school,” I said.
“No, Jesse,” she said. “That’s not your school.”
We trekked more than two miles to the other side of town before stopping in front of a worn out looking building. There was no grass in front. No flowers or sliding board. No merry-go-round.
“This is your new school,” Momma said.
The sparkling schoolhouse just down the hill from me was for the white children. The shabby facility clear across Greenville was for the Black children – children like me.
The unfairness broke my six-year-old heart. The memory of the pain I felt has never left me.
That is why May 17 is such an important day to me and for the country. It was on this day 62 years ago that the Supreme Court of the United States of America handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring that “separate but equal has no place” in public schools.
This is a big day in African American and American history. All the rights we have post-slavery can be traced back to May 17, 1954. That decision changed the whole Western World because it began a new global frame of reference for equal protection. It is a day that should be remembered and celebrated.
The next year, the Court ordered the schools comply with its desegregation decision with “all deliberate speed.” But then as now, the reactionary force did everything in their powers to delay equality and to deny justice. When I graduated from high school in 1959, the schools of my hometown were still separate and unequal. Every day, I had to walk past Greenville High School – green grass, well-maintained fields to practice and play football. My teammates and I at Sterling had to walk two miles from our school to find a field to practice.
Of course, over time, things did get fairer, more equal. For after the Brown v. Board of education decision the fledgling Civil Rights Movement had a brand new weapon – the law.
We live in our faith. We live under the law.
Still, the struggle continues. The culture of resistance to our having these rights is strong, but at least legally we are on solid ground. Just the other day, a federal court ordered the schools in Cleveland, Mississippi, which are still divided by race, be consolidated and desegregated – 62 years after they were supposed to have been. The court, according to The New York Times, found that the Cleveland school district had operated for decades an “inadequate dual system” in the Mississippi Delta city of about 12,000 people.
In most of America today, it is not race that separates our school children. It is resources. It is not talent. It is opportunity. I have been fighting for a fairer share of resources and opportunities for all Americans since 1966 when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., named me to head Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. Breadbasket was the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
We have never stopped doing Dr. King’s work. Next month at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund will hold its 45th annual International Convention – A More Perfect Union: From Freedom to Voting Rights to Economic Justice.
We will pause to remember May 17 and all the victories that came because of it. Then we will return to work and continue fighting for our country.
Rev. Jackson is the founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
edited by Kai EL’Zabar