Brittain: Civil rights struggle not over

By on February 9, 2005

Fifty-one years since the landmark court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, John Brittain thinks that the civil rights movement is only half over. This was just part of what he discussed in his keynote address “From Amistad to Brown: In Search of Justice” on Feb. 3 in Alumni Hall.

Brittain, a law professor at Texas Southern University, says that it is class segregation that prevents the Brown v. Board of Education decision from reaching its full scope.

He focused on the historical significance of the Amistad v. United States and Brown v. Board of Education, bringing them both into contemporary perspectives. He extolled the value of both cases in ending the international slave trade and ending school segregation respectively.

Brittain went on to call both of these cases “incomplete solutions.” He said that segregation still exists in America.

He identified three main layers of segregation in American public schools: ethnically homogeneous populations living isolated from one other, heavily impoverished urban areas and the eventual outcome of these factors such as lower test scores and college enrollment rates for minorities.

“The new Jim Crow barrier is the suburban/urban line,” Brittain said. He illustrated this idea by drawing attention to the Sheff v. O’Neill case which Brittain prosecuted. The case revolved around the idea that schools needed to be integrated in order for all children to receive a worthwhile education. Connecticut is currently in the middle of a lawsuit alleging non-compliance with the standards set forth by the Sheff decision.

Brittain closed his speech on a hopeful plea that future generations find a new Brown decision to destroy the socioeconomic segregation that is growing in society.

After Brittain’s speech, a panel discussed racial issues specifically in the context of education. This panel consisted of Brittain, Will Foster, an English professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College, David Canton, an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College and Elizabeth Horton-Sheff, the defendant in the Sheff v. O’Neill case and a Hartford councilwoman.

Canton began the discussion by saying “instead of running from [racism], we should deal with it.” The discussion continued with an emphasis on the need to recognize racism in schools. All of the panelists agreed that children know more about racism than adults think and thatthe only way to break down the racists myths of the past is with ethnically diverse schools.

Foster said that “slavery still exists today.” He asserted that if certain classes still benefit from the successes of slavery then it affects contemporary society, especially the education system.
Sheff briefly discussed her motivations in the case against the Connecticut school system, saying that she decided to act in this case based on her duty to “generations after us,” and although there were some days of anger during litigation, “there was never a day of doubt.” She went on to say that education in America needs a complete overhauling.

Brittain said after the discussion that in the Sheff v. O’Neill case if the judge rules for anything but complete non-compliance by the state, then it is not justice. He said that the most profound way to impact the segregation in Conn. schools would be to eliminate all municipal boundary lines.

Mary Lesser, professor of sociology at Quinnipiac, agreed with Brittain that the major challenge to America was to create socioeconomic equality. She disparaged the government’s current economic policy and called it “horrendous.”

Francis Braunlich, a local resident, added to her comments emphasizing that “it just feels so completely hopeless under the current circumstances.”

This event is just one in a number of events that will be held in February to celebrate black history month at Quinnipiac. Some upcoming events include a keynote lecture from Randall Robinson, a showing of the film Amistad, the Michael Blackson Apollo Night and the James Marshall Poetry Slam.


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