Op-Ed: These young black women made desegregation possible. We need to learn from their example

Black students are provided with a military escort at Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas, following the school's desegregation, 1957.
(FPG / Getty Images)

Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark ruling that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, is being dismantled. The Supreme Court has been chipping away at it for decades: In Milliken vs. Bradley (1974), it ruled that integration could not take place across district lines, and in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), it made “explicit racial classifications” in school placement illegal.

Another blow landed last week, when the Trump administration revoked Obama-era guidelines on affirmative action in college admissions, which suggests that colleges that try to maintain a racially diverse student body could face investigation by the Justice Department or retaliation from the Education Department.

The core idea of Brown, that significant numbers of black and white students would attend school together, may become unattainable, even unimaginable in our lifetimes. Reversing course won’t be easy — but it is possible. To stem the tide of despair, it helps to look at the courage, work and sacrifice of those who made Brown vs. Board a reality against long odds: black young women and girls.


The first bona fide school desegregation warrior was Lucile Bluford, who applied to the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1939 at the age of 24. When she was rejected, she filed a lawsuit that lasted three years. During that time, Bluford applied to the University of Missouri 11 times. She showed up in the registrar’s office so often that the school finally barred her from the campus. It ultimately closed its renowned school of journalism in 1942 rather than admit her.

To honor what these girls accomplished, we must learn from their example: Reversing racist laws is possible.

At the height of Bluford vs. Canada (Silas W. Canada was the registrar), having endured countless setbacks, Bluford wrote an editorial for the Kansas City Call. “To admit Negroes to white schools will be less revolutionary than it appears,” she wrote. “Personal and civic decency will make others share the state schools with Negroes.” This was 15 years before Brown vs. Board of Education.

When, in 1984, a chastened University of Missouri presented Bluford with an honorary degree, she took it upon herself to find Canada, now retired and living off campus. She told a reporter that they “had a nice chat,” and that the fault did not lie with him personally. “It was the university,” she said. “It was the state. It was the law. They had a law.”

After World War II, Ada Lois Sipuel took on the mantle of America’s foremost school desegregation pioneer. Sipuel applied to the University of Oklahoma law school in January 1946. The state offered to set up a black law school for her to attend, but she refused. Through the arduous process of fundraising, dealing with violent threats and testifying in court, she was relentlessly poised, diplomatic and upbeat when talking to the press. When she arrived on the OU campus as a student, she told the press that she “hoped to make friends,” but those “who would call me names, I won’t even hear them.” She was not promising forbearance, but impenetrability.

In 1951, she became the first plaintiff to graduate from the school she had successfully sued to desegregate. And she ultimately became a member of the OU Board of Regents that had once so assiduously opposed her presence. Her last act before retiring was to create an endowed professorship for Anita Hill. “Ada Lois Sipuel,” Anita Hill says, “was my role model for strength and committed leadership and my inspiration to remain hopeful. And she still is.”

In 1947 and 1948, with Sipuel in the headlines, girls and parents began to take action on primary and secondary schools. A dozen lawsuits were filed, all save one on behalf of girls and young women who’d been turned away from white schools in rural Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., East St. Louis and elsewhere.

These girls were the public face of school desegregation — an issue that was divisive and radical in the 1940s. They spoke to angry white principals and quizzical white journalists. In court, they remained unruffled in the face of opposing counsel’s barbs. These plaintiffs volunteered for all this because they believed that segregated public schools were an urgent moral crisis — one that they and their parents presumed girls in particular were suited to take on.

Speaking to enraged white adults required both physical courage and social dexterity. Girls had both. They were self-possessed, polite, measured and patient — while remaining steadfast and unyielding. Like Bluford and Sipuel, these girls never let go of their steely determination to dismantle discriminatory legal strictures.

It was these girls’ lawsuits that convinced Thurgood Marshall and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to take grade school desegregation to the Supreme Court years before anticipated.

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After the Brown ruling, girls also volunteered in vastly disproportionate numbers to be the first to desegregate formerly all-white schools — another trial. To be “admitted” to historically white schools in the deep South, girls had to pass a battery of tests and an interview with the school board. In 1963, the all-white, all-male Charleston School Board requested to see 12-year-old Millicent Brown. They wanted to know if she liked her black school, and if she enjoyed going to school with her friends. “So why would you want to leave that,” they queried, “and go someplace where you don’t know anybody?” Brown shot back: “Because I make friends wherever I go.” It was an artful response. In demonstrating her superior humanity, she had checkmated the whole room.

Once inside these schools, young women faced constant verbal and physical harassment. White students tripped them, hit them, spit on them, pushed them down the stairs. Often they had to fight back. But they did not succumb to hate. “I never hated anyone,” said Betta Bowman, the first black student at a school in Baton Rouge, La. “My mother [said]: ‘We don’t hate people — [because] you’re going to hurt yourself more than you hurt the other person.’”

To honor what these girls accomplished, we must learn from their example: Reversing racist laws is possible. A wary public can be convinced that radical social change is possible. As plaintiff Doris Raye Brewer put it: “Don’t be satisfied where you are if you can get to another place. Don’t ever think you’ve arrived. Just keep on pluggin’.”

Rachel Devlin, a history professor at Rutgers University, is the author of “A Girl Stands at the Door.”

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