- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

While he didn’t benefit directly from Donald Trump’s final hiring decision in the TV reality series, “The Apprentice,” Kwame Jackson did benefit directly from a Supreme Court decision made 50 years ago this month.

A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Harvard Business School, Mr. Jackson — who reached the final round of The Apprentice — is one of the millions of African Americans who can now walk proudly through America’s school- and board-room doors as a result of the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

In America, a quality education is the key to a brighter future, opening the door to enhanced professional opportunities. The denial of a quality education has the opposite effect, and in the past was used as an instrument of oppression. During the era of slavery, for example, most slave owners did all they could to prevent their slaves from becoming literate, knowing full well that literacy would doom the institution of slavery. Education frequently had to be pursued by slaves clandestinely, and those who were caught reading or studying were often severely punished.

After slavery was abolished, efforts to deny educational opportunities to Africans assumed subtler forms. Until the Brown decision, the law of the land was “separate but equal” — a euphemistic edict condoning segregation in all aspects of public life (housing, public facilities), including education.

The concept of a separate but equal education was a dramatic farce, of course, since far fewer resources were typically made available to African American schools than “white” schools. It was not uncommon for African American elementary school students to be educated in substandard classroom facilities lacking the most-basic amenities, while being “taught” from outdated textbooks previously discarded by white schools.

The circumstances which led Oliver Brown to approach the local NAACP in Topeka, Kansas, were typical of the era. His daughter Linda was forced to walk a mile to attend her segregated school, though there was a “white” school only a few blocks from her home. When Brown’s attempt to enroll his daughter in her neighborhood school was rebuffed, the stage was set for the legal battle that struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine.

After the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, activists sought to loosen segregation’s hold on other facets of public life as well, including access to higher education. In fact, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who earlier had served as lead counsel in the Brown case, also played a prominent role in litigating the case that led to the admission of the first African American students to UNC, Chapel Hill. That case opened the doors through which Kwame Jackson and many other African Americans have subsequently passed.

By unlocking the doors of public education and providing the foundation upon which the battle for equal access to higher learning was fought and won, the Brown decision was the first step in the African American community’s long struggle for professional mobility — the first step toward America’s corporate board rooms.

Statistics show that African Americans are marching through the doors that Brown opened 50 years ago. A recent study conducted by The American Council on Education illustrated that both college enrollment rates and graduation rates among African Americans has risen steadily over the last 20 years.

Indeed, African American executives now serve as the chief executive officers (CEOs) of some of America’s most prominent companies.

The Brown vs. Board of Education decision opened the doors to classrooms, which opened the doors of opportunity. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark decision, we see Brown’s legacy embodied in the many African American entrepreneurs, business executives, doctors, educators, scientists, writers and other professionals who contribute to America’s daily life — and the millions of others who will follow in the future.

Alvin Williams is president and CEO of Black America’s Political Action Committee. You may contact him at [email protected]

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