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50 Years After Brown Inequities Remain at Universities

Sara Hebel, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers) (May 10, 2004):

Fifty years ago this month, Vivian Malone Jones picked up the newspaper outside her front door and read a headline about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed segregation in public schools.

"I went to my mother and asked her what did that really mean," recalls Ms. Jones, who was 12 at the time."I already knew I wanted to go to college. I knew I wanted to major in business. But this put something in your mind that you can really do this."

Almost a decade later, in 1963, Ms. Jones found herself at the center of a key moment in the desegregation of the nation's higher-education system. On a hot June day, Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama blocked the entrance of the University of Alabama's auditorium so that Ms. Jones and another black student, James A. Hood, could not enroll. President John F. Kennedy ordered the Alabama National Guard to remove the governor so that the students could register for class.

"That was one of the most important things I could have done," says Ms. Jones, who pursued a major in industrial relations. In 1965 she became the first black student to graduate from the University of Alabama."I knew this had been too long in coming for us for me to think about not attending," she says.

The decision in Brown, a case that combined lawsuits from five school districts, did not immediately lead to the integration of the nation's public colleges. But it laid the groundwork for black students like Ms. Jones to challenge the legality of a segregated higher-education system and helped spark the civil-rights movement that eventually led the federal government to require integration in public colleges.

In the half-century since the Brown ruling, many traditionally white universities have attracted significant numbers of black students, more black students are attending college, and states have provided new academic programs and facilities to improve the quality of their historically black institutions.

Yet inequities remain. Black students are underrepresented in doctoral programs, black faculty members and administrators are relatively scarce at many predominantly white institutions, and historically black colleges -- despite receiving additional resources in recent years -- are still trying to improve their reputations after decades of neglect by the states.

Eleven of the 19 states that once operated segregated public colleges have yet to receive official declarations from the federal government that they are desegregated. Some college officials and analysts worry that, as monitoring of those states winds down, resources and efforts to make opportunities for higher education fully equal will begin to wane....