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Judge Alfred J. Jennings, Jr.
Judge Alfred J.
Jennings, Jr

Judge Alfred J. Jennings Jr. receives the Judge Edward R. Finch Law Day Speech Award

The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Public Education has selected Connecticut Superior Court Judge Alfred J. Jennings Jr. to receive the Judge Edward R. Finch Law Day Speech Award for the best 2004 Law Day speech nationwide.


The speech was entitled "To Win Equality by Law: Brown v. Board of Education at 50." Read entire speech below...

Judge Jennings delivered the speech on April 20, 2004, at the Law Day ceremony sponsored by the Regional Bar Association and held at the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District.

The Regional Bar Association in Stamford submitted Judge Jennings’ speech to the ABA.

The award will be presented in February during the ABA’s midyear meeting in Salt Lake City.

Law Day Speech, April 30, 2004, Superior Court, Stamford

"To win Equality by Law: Brown v. Board of Education at 50"

Thank you Judge Kavenewsky.

Honorable Judges, Members of the Bar, students, teachers, ladies and gentlemen:

Good morning on this 46th annual observance of Law Day. Our theme today is "To win Equality by Law: Brown v. Board of Education at 50".

The America of half a century ago in 1954 was not tumultuous, as it would become in the 60s.

A popular president, Dwight Eisenhower, was midway through his first term. The world was recovering from the ravages of World War II. The Korean War was over. America was in love with its flashy, chrome-laden cars with rear fins. Ed Sulliivan and Milton Berle were on TV. The Interstate Highway system was being built. The "baby boom" had started. New houses were cropping up everywhere. In many ways, things were looking good.

But, there were problems – serious problems. America was a racially divided country, especially – but not exclusively – in the south. Although almost a century had passed since President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution had abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment had guaranteed to the citizens of all states due process of law and equal protection of the law, African Americans – or "colored people", as they were then called – in many parts of America were forced to live virtually a separate existence apart from the mainstream of American Society. There was in many places a line in the sand separating backs from whites under the so-called "Jim Crow" laws enacted in the late 1800s by some 17 southern and "border" states , mandating – by force of law – the separation of blacks and whites in parks, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, theaters, libraries, bathrooms, buses, trains, places of employment, and in its most invidious form - because of its impact on innocent children – in the public schools.

And this mandated pattern of segregation, had survived a legal challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment when in 1896 the Supreme Court held in the case of Plesy v. Ferguson that there was not a violation of constitutional rights so long as the facilities available to both races were "substantially equal".

The "separate but equal" doctrine prevailed throughout the first half of the 20th century. There were other things on the minds of most Americans, black and white – like surviving a depression and winning two world wars. But, following World War II, things began to change. President Truman, in a courageous move, integrated all American Armed Forces by an Executive Order as Commander in Chief. And, in 1947 in an equally courageous move, a gifted young black athlete out of the UCLA, Jackie Robinson, accepted the offer of Mr. Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to become the first of his race to play in the major leagues.

The NAACP Legal Defense Team, headed by a brilliant young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, began to challenge the pervasive segregation in America in courts throughout the land. And they won some cases under the "separate but equal" doctrine by showing that facilities for blacks were not equal to the facilities for whites--- and then the time had come to challenge the "separate but equal" doctrine head-on.

Linda Brown, was at that time a 7- year old third grade student in Topeka, Kansas. Because she was black, she was not allowed to attend the white elementary school a few blocks from her home. She had to walk over a mile through a railroad switch yard to attend Monroe Elementary School, a segregated school for blacks only. Her father, Oliver Brown, tried unsuccessfully to enroll her in the white school. With the assistance of the NAACP her father sued the Topeka board of education. He did not claim that Monroe Elementary school was inferior to the white school. He claimed that Linda was denied equal protection of the law just because she was required to go to a separate school. The federal court in Topeka ruled in favor of the school board on the basis of the "separate but equal" doctrine, even though the court made a finding that segregation of white and colored children has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.

Linda Brown’s case was consolidated with the cases of other black students from South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court heard argument in December of 1951, but failed to decide the case before the end of the term. During the summer recess, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died of a heart attack. President Eisenhower appointed former California Governor Earl Warren to replace him. The Court heard argument again in December 1952. Chief Justice Warren very much wanted the court’s opinion to be unanimous and he worked all the through the winter and spring to bring the Court together to put an end to school segregation.

Finally, there was unanimity on an opinion written by the Chief Justice. On May 17, 1954 without advance notice Chief Justice Warren read the opinion into the record at the end of a routine court session. Oliver Brown had won. Mandatory segregation of the races in the public schools was held to be in all cases a violation of the equal protection clause, The Court ruled that under the Constitution, "separate" can never be "equal".

As the Court said: " Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational facilities? We believe that it does."

Quoting with approval from the federal judge in Linda Brown’s case in Kansas, the Supreme Court said: "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group."

Plesy v. Ferguson was overruled.

The Court ordered segregation in public schools throughout America to end "with all deliberate speed", but did not set a deadline or prescribe any particular method to integrate the schools. In fact the implementation of the order took decades, because of the labyrinth of rules and regulations governing thousands of school districts throughout the country, and because of some obvious resistance and heel-dragging especially in the south. Eventually, however, deliberate mandated school segregation came to an end, and virtually all school systems have been released from judicial supervision as being in compliance with the Brown decision.

The impact of the Brown decision was immense. Even though it did not end purposeful school discrimination for many years, it had a prompt and profound effect in other areas. A unanimous Supreme Court had declared in simple and unambiguous terms that segregation of the races was illegal . The civil rights movement had been "kick-started". By the end of the 1960’s Congress had passed laws prohibiting discrimination in all public facilities, voting rights, employment, housing, health care, public accommodations, and virtually every aspect of American life. The Brown decision was the "shining beacon" that had finally alerted America to the evils of the segregation and discrimination that had prevailed for almost 100 years since the end of slavery.

The impact of Brown is evident today, after 50 years, among students whose parents may not have been born when Brown was decided. For instance, David Benjamin of Westhill High School, says in his Law Day essay:

" Being in a diverse environment is the only way for students to learn about others’cultures and to learn how to interact with these other people in the real world. … For many years, people have been searching for ways to bridge the gap between different races, uniting everyone in brotherhood together. Brown v. Board of Education was one of the first steps to bridging this gap."

Christine Suchy of Middlebrook School, says: "The United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education helped protect liberty, education rights, and most of all – freedom... .I cannot imagine a classroom without students of all races and cultures."

And Cyprian Oyomba of All Saints Catholic School says:

"The Brown v. Board of Education decision is one of the most critical decisions ever made by the Supreme Court. If it were not for that decision I probably would not be going to the school that I am currently attending. Thanks to Oliver Brown and Thurgood Marshall I can receive a quality education just like any other person."

From the point of view of our Law Day celebration today, I would like to dwell for just a moment not only on what the Brown case decided, but the way it was decided. Let us look back at that other terrible injustice in American history – slavery. Before the Emancipation Proclamation could have any meaning, or the Thirteenth Amendment could be ratified, we had to go through four years of the bloodiest war in our history. Some 558,000 Americans – some wearing the blue uniform of the North and some wearing the gray uniform of the South – lost their lives. The school segregation decision, on the other hand, was made when Oliver Brown, through his chosen attorneys, brought a civil lawsuit in a federal court in Kansas on behalf of his daughter Linda. He lost, but the judge issued a written opinion setting forth his reasoning. Oliver Brown then exercised his rights to appeal and took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The case was pending there for almost two years of deliberate, orderly consideration of the briefs and oral arguments advanced by Thurgood Marshall and his chief adversary, John W. Davis. No blood was shed. The decision was made in the courthouse – not the battlefield - based solely on the records from the lower courts and the arguments and briefs of the parties. There were no uniforms other than the plain black robes of the Justices, and their decision instantly became the law of the land and remains so today. In other words, this momentous decision was made peacefully, under the "Rule of Law", which is really the recurring theme that we celebrate each Law Day. The Rule of Law is what has given us a stable government for 232 years, and differentiates us from despotism and dictatorship.

As Jacob Berv of Westhill High School said in his essay:

"Indeed, a society without law is not a society at all, but a group of people living in anarchy. "

A poignant example of our national adherence to the Rule of Law occurred after the last presidential election. The result of the voting was uncertain weeks after the election. The Supreme Court took the case, heard argument and issued a 5- 4 ruling. Millions of people disagreed with the ruling, but no one questioned its finality and George W. Bush became our 43rd President. In a country of 290 million people, the vote of a single Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court determined the outcome, and an orderly transition of government took place. In many countries, the military would have become involved and there would have been bloodshed.

The final chapter on Brown v, Board of Education has yet to be written. Certainly, all mandatory, or intentional school segregation has been abolished. No one is excluded from any school because of his or her race. But, there are varying degrees of real integration in our schools.

Because of other factors – the decline of our cities, the flight to the suburbs, private schools, teacher shortages, the outplacement of jobs to other countries, economic downturns and declining tax bases, and many other factors- there are school systems and individual schools where the racial/ethnic enrollments do not reflect the makeup of the local population. This is sometimes called "de facto segregation". Just look at this Page One story from the Stamford Advocate of April 27 concerning racial imbalance in the Norwalk public schools.

As Matthew Gurney noted in his essay, it is rare sometimes to find a minority student in honors programs or advanced placement courses. A recent study by Harvard University has shown a back-sliding because of de-facto segregation. In my native City of Bridgeport 89% of the students in the public schools are African-American, Latino or other minorities.

Connecticut has had its own 1990s version of Brown v. Board of Education. Elizabeth Horton Sheff sued Governor O’Neill and the Hartford School system on behalf of her son Milo who was a fourth grade student. She claimed that students in Hartford public schools were racially, ethnically, and economically isolated, and that, as a result, Hartford public school students had been denied a substantially equal educational opportunity under the Constitution of Connecticut. In 1996 the Connecticut Supreme Court found that poverty, not race or ethnicity, was the principal causal factor in the lower educational achievement of Hartford students, but nonetheless found that the plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitution of Connecticut had been violated and ordered the Governor and the Connecticut General Assembly to come up with a remedy. The case is now the subject of an interim settlement agreement approved by the court, subject to further review in 2007. The agreement calls for tripling the number of Hartford’s African- American and Latino students in desegregated educational settings within four years through a plan which includes two new interdistrict magnet schools and increased usage of Project Choice with adjoining suburban towns.

On this 50th anniversary of the Brown decision we must all rededicate ourselves to work constantly to stamp out the "detrimental effect" of racial separation, as first noted by the federal judge in Topeka, whether it be mandatory or "de facto" .

It will probably be up to our students here today, and their peers, to write the final pages of the Brown v. Board of Education legacy. The solutions will not be easy. They may have to involve the rejuvenation of entire cities, along the lines of what has happened here in Stamford. These young people will be the parents, school board members, teachers, administrators, sociologists, economists, legislators, lawyers, judges, even Governor to make sure that the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education comes to full fruition in the complex world of this 21st Century. We can only ask that they always be guided by the fundamental precepts of that "shining beacon" that started the civil rights movement, and that the solutions be formulated - not by riot or violence or anger – but by peaceful, orderly, reasoned discussion and deliberation - in the spirit of Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren – under the Rule of Law.

Alfred J. Jennings, Jr.
 

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