Dean Obeidallah

Bigotry Is Back, 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education

Discrimination is all around us. But we’re always going to fight to end it, as the sign at Linda Brown’s former elementary school in Kansas reminds us.

Larry W. Smith/Getty

“The Struggle Continues.” I was almost moved to tears (and I’m not really an emotional guy) after reading these words emblazoned on the wall of the Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas—the very school Linda Brown attended in the 1950s.

Linda Brown’s parents were two of the plaintiffs in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, handed down 60 years ago today. In it, the Supreme Court ruled that legally mandated racial segregation of public schools was no longer permissible under our Constitution.

I never expected to have such an emotional reaction when I recently visited the school, which is now a national landmark. Driving up to it, you would think it’s like any of the nation’s thousands of elementary schools. It’s miles from downtown Topeka, across from an empty field, in a sparsely populated area.

But it’s far from being just another school. It’s a constant reminder of the inhumanity of segregation. And the most repugnant part of that system of racial discrimination was that it was created, sanctioned, and enforced by elected officials, law-enforcement agencies, and our judiciary.

These racial-segregation laws meant that if a black child wanted to obtain an education, they would in some cases have to literally walk for miles to get to the “black schools,” passing “whites only” schools on the way. And when they reached their school, many had no cafeterias, gyms, or science labs. What they did have were out-of-date textbooks, leaky roofs, and no heat. Separate but horribly unequal.

What made me emotional were not just the words on the wall, but my reflecting upon our nation’s past challenges and contemplating our struggles now. As I stood there staring at the photos of the children in segregated schools, it brought to mind Rev. Martin Luther King’s autobiography, in which he spoke of playing with his friend when he was 5. But the next year, when it was time to attend school, his friend—who was white—went to one school while he was forced to attend another.

A young Martin, perplexed by this, asked his parents for an explanation. I can’t imagine the pain and frustration a black parent must have felt as they explained to their child legally sanctioned segregation. How do you tell your son or daughter that because of his or her skin color they have been deemed inferior by the laws of the nation they live in? What words do you use to tell your child that through no fault of their own except for being born black, they are sentenced to second- or third-class education?

The exhibit also marked the struggles of activists who bravely, tirelessly, and at the risk of life and limb fought for equal rights for all Americans regardless of skin color. The images on the wall tracked their challenges as well as their successful moments, such as a photo of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, with Rev. King standing right behind him in the White House.

That’s when I began to consider how the words “the struggle continues” are very relevant today. That phrase is the enduring legacy of all who fought to end segregation. We are compelled to honor their memory by continuing to fight bigotry regardless of whom it’s directed against.

That’s why we must all be alarmed by the findings of a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which found 26 percent of those polled worldwide are “deeply infected” with anti-Semitic attitudes.

And it’s why we can’t idly sit by when we see state legislators attempting to pass laws that would, under the guise of “religious liberty,” allow discrimination against gay Americans, including being able to deny service at a restaurant simply because of a customer’s sexual orientation.

It’s also why voter-ID Laws passed in recent years are so disturbing On their face, these laws appear racially neutral, but only the intellectually dishonest can claim that’s what their impact will be.

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The goal of these laws, as Republican Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai candidly stated in 2012, was to help Republicans win elections. Translation: Disenfranchise voters who traditionally are part of the Democratic coalition, namely minorities. In fact, the Pennsylvania voter-ID law was so egregious that it was struck down in January after the court found it could unconstitutionally disenfranchise “hundreds of thousands” of voters.

The spirit of Brown also must inspire us to challenge the anti-Muslim bigotry we see. For example, we continue to hear some claim that Muslims, who represent about 2 percent of our nation’s population, are planning to overpower the other 300 million-plus Americans and impose Sharia law. Even the Republicans championing anti-Sharia law legislation in places like North Carolina and Florida admit there hasn’t been even one instance of Muslims trying to impose Sharia law in their states, but that hasn’t stopped them from stoking the flames of fear and hate for political gain. This fight, too, demands our collective action to ensure that American Muslim children are not treated differently simply because of their faith.

To me, the words “the struggle continues” should be the guiding mantra for all those who oppose bigotry. The lessons from the fight against segregation teach us that the stakes are simply too great to allow the voices of intolerance to ever go unchallenged.