Anna Paul, a 10th grader at Jamestown High School, recently asked classmates what they thought of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling for a story she was planning to write for the school newspaper. They agreed that integration had been successful.
"We get the same equal opportunity. We get the same educational facilities," Paul said. "To me, you can't get more equal than that."
For many others, though, it's not that simple.
"I don't think that the legacy promised by Brown v. Board is anywhere near being completed," said Antonio Hinton, Sr., president of the Hampton NAACP, "especially when you look at disparities in educational funding."
For him, the inequities in school funding and the gap in test scores indicate that equal access guaranteed by the decision has yet to be realized.
Whether the Brown v. Board decision and efforts to enforce it are a success depends on how you define the goal of the case.
What was the point? Was it about equal opportunity and equal access to schools? Or did it aim for something broader, offering a catalyst for the civil rights movement or ensuring minority achievement? When seen through a prism of racial distribution, changes in the area have been significant.
McKinley Price, a Newport News dentist, can attest to that. He believes that Brown v. Board was successful socially in giving different groups more exposure to each other. Price, who chairs People to People, a nonprofit that promotes racial harmony, had his first interaction with what he calls "the major race" at 18 -a little late, he admits.
"You have to academically and socially interact with people in order to get to know them," he said.
Researchers agree that the distribution of races in the schools changed markedly over the past 50 years.
"We're a lot better off in the South than we were when we had civil rights enforcement going on," said Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy and founding co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project.
Change was often slow in coming, as government officials tried to define "all deliberate speed" as "whenever" or "maybe never." First, there were protests and delaying tactics, such as the policy of massive resistance in Virginia where schools closed for years rather than integrate. Some schools grudgingly integrated as late as the mid-1970s.
By 1988, the percentage of blacks attending majority white schools in the South reached a high of 44 percent, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Project. But by 2001, the share of blacks attending majority white schools in the South dropped to 30 percent, significantly below the 36 percent reached in 1972.
"[Brown] was very successful in calling attention to the issue of desegregation and reducing segregation within school districts up to 1990 in a substantial way," said John Logan, a professor of sociology and director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at SUNY-Albany.
Based on his calculations, Newport News is "clearly a district that desegregated massively." In 1968, 90 percent or more white students needed to switch elementary schools in the district in order for blacks and whites to be equally distributed. By 2000, only 30 percent of white students needed to move to achieve balanced distribution.
Equal access to the same schools translated into better facilities for black students, said Thelma Anderson, a retired school teacher. She taught at George W. Watkins High School when it was a black school and at New Kent High School in the early years of integration. "I don't think actual integration was the key focus," she said. "It was getting equal facilities and equal opportunities. In a lot of cases, I think that has succeeded."
Many who take a broader view of Brown v. Board of Education believe it has yet to fulfill its promise.
To U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, studies that say half of low-income students who qualify for college can't afford to attend are proof that the success of equal opportunity in education is not a sure thing.
"That's not equal opportunity when half don't attend because of economic disadvantage," he said. The ruling and its enforcement also had an unexpected side effect. Local teachers who taught at the time noted that something changed after black students began to share classrooms with white students and teachers.
"In integration, students lost some things and gained others," said Olivia Wilcher, who taught at James Weldon Johnson School during integration and later York High School before retiring.
A sense of togetherness vanished, she said. At the segregated schools, black students occupied all positions, from cheerleaders to valedictorians. They were high achievers.
"I'm not sure all teachers have the same interest in them that their teachers had before integration," she said.
Bobbye Alexander, a retired teacher who taught at Bruton Heights before integration, agreed.
"We expected more of them," Alexander said. "Now I don't see that high expectation."
"When I look at the SOLs and see there's a possibility that-unless something happens-some of our students will not graduate from high school after 12 years, that brings tears to my eyes." For the many who see Brown v. Board through the prism of black achievement, realizing the promise of the decision is an ongoing struggle.
"It's fair to say," Scott said, "that you will always have to work at it."Copyright © 2015, CT Now