Sixty Years Since Brown v Board of Education

NAACP LDF Team in the Brown v Board of Education case

Brown v Board of Education was decided 60 years ago on May 17, 1954. The United States Supreme Court unanimously held that schools segregated by race are inherently unequal, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Court overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination. Brown v Board and the Civil Rights Movement had an impact on transforming the nation, and the lives of everyday people like me. I am a civil rights attorney.

The Civil Rights Movement included attorneys taking cases to court, Brown and other judicial decisions, organizing in the streets, legislation by Congress, action by the President, and voting by the people. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Brown, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and the 20th anniversary of the Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice and health.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the country's first and foremost civil rights law firm, led the campaign in the courts that culminated in Brown. Thurgood Marshall founded LDF. He later became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Thurgood Marshall is one of my heroes, not because he became a Supreme Court Justice, but because he was a civil rights attorney. His gravestone says "Marshall / Civil Rights Advocate." If all anyone ever says about me is I am a Civil Rights Advocate, I will be happy and proud.

Thurgood Marshall's gravestone at Arlington Cemetery
Thurgood Marshall's gravestone at Arlington Cemetery

LDF's legal strategy leading to Brown built on the work of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens). The first successful school desegregation case in the US was the Lemon Grove case that LULAC won in the San Diego Superior Court in 1932. LULAC also filed Mendez v. Westminster School District, in which the federal district court held in 1946 that segregating students based on Mexican descent violated the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court also in 1954 held that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, or descent in Hernandez v Texas, another LULAC case. Discrimination is not a black or white issue. Hernandez extends equal protection to people like me. I am an immigrant. I was born in Guatemala and came here when I was four.

Guatemalan Passport for entry to US 1956
Guatemalan Passport for entry to US 1956.

Attorneys seeking justice in court, and the judicial decision in Brown, were important parts of the broader Movement -- but they were only a part. Martin Luther King, Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and others organized the Movement in the streets, culminating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and the passage of landmark legislation. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare in 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. President Lyndon Johnson pushed the '64 Act through Congress through brilliant parliamentary maneuvering, cajoling, and arm twisting. The 1964 election provided a mandate by the people in support of the Civil Rights Movement.

Two examples show how different parts of the Movement were necessary for change. Ten years after Brown, schools in the South had taken virtually no steps to comply with the decision by desegregating. Federal agencies then began using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to withhold federal funds unless schools desegregated. As a result, Southern schools by 1970 became the most integregated schools in the nation. Title VI prohibits discrimination by recipients of federal funding.

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Similarly, LDF, federal officials, and public health officials in and out of court addressed health discrimination. The federal Hill-Burton Act of 1944 provided more than $100 million per year in direct aid to states for "separate but equal" health services and facilities. A federal court of appeals in an LDF case struck down that "separate but equal" provision in Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in 1963, applying the logic of Brown. After Congress passed Title VI and Medicare, federal agencies used funding to require hospitals and health care services to abandon segregation. We continue to fight for health justice as a civil rights issue with a renewed commitment against health discrimination by Congress in the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

MTA legal team Bill Lann Lee, Connie Rice, Robert García, Richard Larson
MTA legal team Bill Lann Lee, Connie Rice, Robert García, Richard Larson   

I have worked as an attorney with LDF. We won the historic environmental justice class action in Labor Community Strategy Center v Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. MTA agreed to invest $2 billion to keep bus fares low and improve transit county wide under a court-ordered settlement agreement. We provided the legal team. The Bus Riders Union provided the organizing. This is "a remarkable moment in American urban history," according to UCLA Prof. Edward Soja in his book Spatial Justice. We won an injunction against police misconduct by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. We helped release Geronimo Pratt, the former Black Panther leader, from prison after 27 years for a crime he did not commit, working with Johnnie Cochran and others.

Geronimo Pratt on his first day of freedom in 1997 at LDF LA.
Geronimo Pratt on his first day of freedom in 1997 at LDF LA.
Prof. Anthony G. Amsterdam circa 1977
Prof. Anthony G. Amsterdam circa 1977

I represented people on Death Row in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi as a cooperating attorney with LDF. We reversed the conviction and sentence and the state dropped all charges in my first death penalty case. I learned I could make a difference as a lawyer. I studied with Anthony G. Amsterdam at Stanford Law School. Tony has been the architect behind the movement to abolish the Death Penalty for 50 years. He is the greatest teacher I have ever had in 20 years of schooling in public schools, Catholic Schools, Stanford, and Yale. Tony has influenced everything I have ever done as an attorney. Tony taught me to do justice, and not just practice law. In college I read that he routinely argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment freedom of speech, Fourth Amendment search and seizure, and Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment grounds, and that he had never charged a client. I thought, what a wonderful way to live your life.

We started The City Project in 2000 to find alternative ways to seek social change through law, without resorting to litigation as the first or only means, in the face of an increasingly conservative Court, Congress, and country. Drawing on the Civil Rights Movement, our strategies include organizing coalitions; translating research, policy,and law into real changes in people's lives; stategic media campaigns; policy and legal advocacy outside the courts; and access to justice through the courts.

With diverse allies, we persuaded Andrew Cuomo, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to withhold federal subsidies for a proposed warehouse project unless there was a full environmental review that considered the impact on people of color and low income communities, and considered the park alternative, citing Title VI and the Environmental Justice Order. As a result, the site is now Los Angeles State Historic Park. "This park is not here because of the vision of politicians, or some design or plan. This park is here because of the struggle and agitation by the community. Deservedly, their action is renowned as one of the most significant environmental justice victories in Los Angeles, and is the catalyst for the revitalization of the Los Angeles River," according to Senator Kevin de Leon. Environmental justice is the environmental arm of the Civil Rights Movement. The Army Corps of Engineers addresses park and health disparities, citing the Environmental Justice Order, in its study to revitalize the L.A. River. The National Park Service, recommending a new national recreation area in the San Gabriel Mountains and watershed, addresses park and health disparities, citing the Order.

Los Angeles State Historic Park Groundbreaking, 2014
Los Angeles State Historic Park Groundbreaking, 2014.

Schools are a civil rights issue. The Los Angeles Unified School District has raised $27 billion through local ballot measures and matching federal and state funds. 92% of the students are of color, and 74% are low income and qualify for free or reduced meals. The district has built 130 new schools and modernized hundreds more, and cleaned up polluted sites. Each $50 million has created 935 annual jobs, $43 million in wages, and $130 million in local business revenue. Best practices create meaningful work through apprenticeships and contracts for diverse businesses. I served as chairman of the School Bond Citizens Oversight Committee from 2000 to 2005 to use the planning process to distribute the bond funds fairly. The district is also complying with education and civil rights laws by providing physical education. This is a civil rights issue because if children of color and low income children do not receive physical education in school, they typically do not engage in physical activity. They do not have access to parks and school fields in their neighborhoods.


Tom Hayden, author of the Point Huron Statement and a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, is on The City Project's board. With civil rights lawyer Paul Hoffman, we helped persuade the U.S. Justice Department to obtain a consent decree against police misconduct by the Los Angeles Police Department. I first met Tom after college in 1976 when he was running for the Senate. I was a community organizer for David Harris, who was student body president at Stanford, and served 20 months in prison for draft resistance during the Viet Nam War.

Brown reflects the transformative power of education. The nuns at Immaculate Conception School expected us to grow up to be saints. I am by no means a saint, but I did learn we each need to do what we can to save our own soul. My mother paid $7.50 per month for each of us to attend that school. My grandfather Julio, who did not go past the fourth grade, became a linotypist and read constantly. Like him, I read constantly growing up, which helped me get to college. I studied the history of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the 19th century with Prof. John Mothershed, focusing on values, justice, and the good life.

Someone -- a supporter -- once asked me why I threw away my Stanford education to do the work I do. I didn't. Stanford makes it possible to do the work I do. I served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, prosecuting complex federal crimes under John Martin and Rudy Giuliani. I practiced international law at a large New York law firm. People never question the value of that work.

The civil rights struggle continues for the values underlying Brown -- equal justice, democracy, and human dignity.

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