The Brown decision was not a destination. It was and remains an invitation to get out of our seats and do more than applaud what others have done.
Fifty years after Brown’s trumpet tumbled America’s Jerichoed walls of apartheid, the question is no longer, What can Brown do for us? Instead, its lesson of triumphant human struggle and societal transformation challenge us to ask ourselves, What can we do for Brown?
The Brown decision desegregated America’s public schools. It remains for us, 50 years later, to desegregate our hearts. And not just for an anniversary moment, but for every minute. And for every day.
The sea-to-shining-sea celebration of Brown taught us many truths about this nation, and about each other. The end of segregation in America’s public schools set us firmly on the path toward the day when our nation looks in the mirror and sees a rainbowed and colorless reflection—the different colors are there but we do not use one as a sword against any other. We plowshare into our human sunrise, and our skin is simply another of God’s miracles. That is our mirror call. We are still on the path.
Honoring Brown once every 50 years is nothing like enough. Just as being a Sunday-only Christian puts us on the opposite shore of Galilee, the Sermon on the Mount not even a whisper.
The Brown decision, in fact, is not what we really celebrated in 2004. Not really. Not if we actually thought about the history being honored. Look backward in time from that day in May 1954. Look back and consider all the footsteps of the journey that led to the Brown decision. Contemplate the heroic struggle of black Americans who had the audacious courage to actually believe America meant what it claimed as its birth cry—that all people are created equal. Not all white people. All people. Their belief in America and their triumphant struggle to convince America to believe in itself is a degree of patriotism that Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father who wrote the words, was unable to embrace. For “the signers” on July 4, 1776, “all men are created equal” was a verbal thorn aimed at the crown of a king. For the men, women, and children who endured the footsteps on the danger-strewn path to Brown, belief in those words was a crown of thorns they rose above, and lifted a nation with them. We are still rising. Or, we can.
The Brown decision—because it focuses our attention on the courage of those who brought America to that Supreme Court decision—has taught all of us that ordinary people can change the world, that one man or one woman can hear a sermon in their heart and can climb a mountain top, can have a dream, can see the promised land, then climb down that mountain back into the streets and neighborhoods, the alleyways and halls of Congress and deliver that dream to every doorstep and living room in America. Our responsibility, and our great opportunity, is to accept the delivery and sign for it in our own hearts, inside our own skin; to share it with our children, with our friends, and with strangers we pass on the street. The beauty and the power is that each of us can make that next great landmark ruling inside ourselves. And then we can march out from that moment and mark the land with the light of our belief. Brown challenges us to act, not re-enact. To let go of our personal pronoun and become a verb.
We cannot be satisfied with tearing January from our calendars, balling it up and throwing it away, falsely believing we have honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on January 17 by admiring his “dream” and his figures of speech. We cannot simply hear the “dream.” We must be that dream coming true by becoming figures of Dr. King’s speech, giving muscle to that hope and sinew to that love. We must move his dream and our nation toward that promised land with our own arms and legs and the blood beating from our own hearts—desegregated not by the 50-year old Brown decision but by our own decision to desegregate our hearts today. To become one people, and for more than one day.
Brown has delivered. Now it is our turn.
KEN WOODLEY is editor of The Farmville Herald, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. He has won more than two dozen Virginia Press Association writing awards and was the first two-time winner of the D. Lathan Mims Award for Editorial Service to the Community. An Episcopalian, Woodley and his wife, Kim, have two children.
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