Sherrilyn Ifill ’87 revisits Brown v. Board of Education in Derrick Bell Lecture

In the 20th annual Derrick Bell Lecture on Race in Society on November 5, Sherrilyn Ifill ’87, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, revisited Brown v. Board of Education and explored how the effects of that decision—and what was said and unsaid in the Supreme Court’s opinion—still reverberate today.

Following the decision in Brown, the story told by the Court’s opinion became the dominant narrative about segregation, Ifill said. In its conclusion about the harms of segregation, the Court wrote: “Segregation of white and colored children in the public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.”

In examining that statement, Ifill pointed out a missing narrative: how segregation harmed and harms white children. The NAACP’s presentation to the Court in Brown, Ifill noted, did include research indicating the detrimental effect of segregation on both white and black children, but the Court chose to omit that research from the final opinion.

“I believe that 60 years later, we are all living with the fruits of this omission,” Ifill said. “As we watch these astonishing displays of indifference and violence and inhumanity in some of the videos that we have seen over the last year, I believe we must reckon with the reality that the record in Brown predicted with clarity not only what would happen to black children, but what would happen to white children if we failed to reckon with segregation.”

Palpable and toxic fear of integration gripped the country after the Brown decision, Ifill said, shaping every institution in the country: not just schools, but courts, Congress, and even the cities. Fear of integration was at the heart of that year’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Justice John Marshall Harlan II. That same fear also changed the landscape of the country, causing white migration to the suburbs and beginning the abandonment of the public school system.

“The landscape is the result, not of Brown itself, but of the irrational and destructive fear of what Brown would mean,” Ifill said. In reexamining the impact of Brown, Ifill called for a return to the issues that this country was grappling with before Brown—particularly housing segregation.

“If we’re honest with ourselves, segregation is killing the fabric of this country,” Ifill said. “We do not know each other. We stand apart from each other. Our experiences are often too different. If we are ever to prepare our children for the exercise of responsible citizenship in a country that is increasingly diverse, it is urgent and essential that we deal with this.”

Watch the full video of the lecture (1 hr, 36 min):

Posted November 11, 2015