Sixty-five years ago this week, a young man from West Baltimore named Thurgood Marshall listened as Earl Warren pronounced the most important legal words uttered since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Marshall was there as the NAACP attorney seeking racial integration of the nation’s previously segregated public schools. Warren was there as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
America was about to be changed forever, in ways we’re still trying to figure out.
“I have for announcement,” Warren intoned from the bench, “the judgment and opinion of the court in Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.”
He did not stop talking for the next 28 minutes.
For Marshall, the case highlighted a career in which he would argue 32 cases in front of the Supreme Court, and win 28, and lead to his confirmation as the first African-American high court justice.
But it was more than that. Marshall grew up in West Baltimore and attended segregated Douglass High School. He wanted to attend the University of Maryland Law School, where he could have walked to class. But the law school was segregated, so Marshall had to ride the train to Washington each day, to Howard Law School.
It was personal, too, for all those who packed the courtroom that morning of May 17, 1954, because America was about to be asked to live up to its essential credo of fairness and justice.
As Warren read the court’s opinion, Marshall glanced at those around him. He saw reporters from the nation’s black newspapers. Many were scribbling notes with tears coming out of their eyes.
“We conclude,” Warren said, “that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The words would echo across the coming generations – but with each passing year, they became more difficult to hear.
In much of Maryland, they were first met with denial. In Baltimore, Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro Jr. told the school board’s Walter Sondheim, a vocal proponent of integration, “The priests tell me you were right.” And the city’s schools quickly commenced integration.
But the counties did not. A year after the Brown decision, only eight of Maryland’s 22 counties integrated their schools. Harford County waited three years. It was 1957 before 78 schools in Baltimore County enrolled any black students, and 1962 before the last five Maryland counties opened their doors to black students.
And as the city schools integrated but the counties dragged their heels, Baltimore experienced what many municipalities across America went through – a vast exodus of white families to white suburbia.
That migration is still felt today – in re-segregated public schools, and in entire communities.
More on the impact of 65 years ago later this week.
Read part 2: Have We Lived Up to Thurgood Marshall’s Dream?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.