Brown vs. the Board of Education: Still Opening Eyes

When we use our collective voices to help others, we all benefit.

By Alicia Johnson


Legal scale

May 17th marks the anniversary of our Supreme Court's unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision. Educators do not have to wait until then to discuss this excellent example of how united voices can bring change. I like to use the Brown case as one example of why we need to be aware of those in society that experience silent suffering and after becoming aware, we need to act on it. I prep my 11th grade English class all year with persuasion techniques, as it is one of the goals of Virginia to have students who can present a strong persuasive argument. It is not something to teach in one lesson and then move on. I continually point out the importance of the ability to use their voices, not only for themselves, but for those who feel they have no voice.

The Brown case is usually not the main focus of a lesson, it is more part of the main point I want to make with my classes. This year, I decided to bring up the case after discussing slave narratives. Brown is not a slavery case, however, it is an example of how the suffering of one group can prompt people into action. This court case shined a light on the unconstitutionality of the "separate but equal" clause being practiced by the American public education system at the time. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was assisted by 150 plaintiffs from five different states. They were brave, bold, ordinary people and changed the way a nation treated its most valuable possession; its children. Our early abolitionists brought their voices together to end the practice of forced slavery in much the same way.

Take Your Discussions Further

  • Research many of the original documents of the Brown case in our National Archives website.
  • Research other landmark cases prompted by the oppression of a minority.
  • Research other ordinary people who have joined forces to make changes in society.
  • Research how people joining forces have made changes that turned out bad for society.
  • Help students focus their attention on needs of their own community; make a plan.
  • Assign a project to create a PSA that exposes an injustice they see in society.

Making the Connection

Remember, it is helpful to add relevance to our lessons by connecting America's past to America's present. This year I was able to continue the discussion of using our voice by bringing the organization Invisible Children (IC) into the lesson. IC uploaded their video "Kony 2012" (which subsequently went viral) onto YouTube in March to try to garnish support for their goal of bringing African Warlord Joseph Kony to justice. Kony is most famous for his ruthless abuse of his nation's children with his practice of stealing them from their homes and forcing them either into prostitution or into his military. Students were able to research the situation, as well as its relevance to America and the world. Being able to compare how the NAACP handled the Brown case in the 1950's and how Invisible Children is currently handling the Kony situation in 2012 provided opportunities for a much deeper understanding of the hard work and planning that goes into fighting for our rights and the rights of the silent victims in society.

I always try to make a connection from our past to modern times for young people to grasp. I believe it is important for them to know how to verbally defend their rights intelligently and effectively and in doing so, they cannot help but defend the rights of many. Brown vs. The Board of Education is one example of effective persuasion and the exercise of civil rights in order to preserve the rights we all cherish.

More Lessons

If you want to delve more deeply into Brown vs. The Board of Education, the following will provide ideas as to how to incorporate further study:

Sides Switch

This is a strong lesson that uses a New York Times article "Long After Brown v. Board of Education, Sides Switch" and the history surrounding the original Brown case to allow pupils a chance to look at how America still struggles with integration. The lesson challenges learners to research the American culture from many sides and take into consideration  many perspectives. This is a valuable skill in our growing, global society. It is a deep study that will stretch their research skills by taking on the roll of Judge Warren when writing their response. The interdisciplinary connections contain wonderful extensions.

Sharpen Your Skills

Practicing the ability to express an opinion and respond to others' opinions in the form of a courtroom argument is offered here. Using the background and facts from the Brown v. Board of Education case, pupils will closely study one side of the argument and make a case, as well as formulating a response to both sides. This is perfect for practicing debate skills.

Listen and Learn

Audio interviews by Jesse Helms, George Wallace, and Harriet Love are incorporated for those who love to bring technology into their lessons. Learners will have an opportunity to looks closely at the Fourteenth Amendment, Civil Rights, desegregating the education system, and oral history as a learning tool. Well- planned lessons divided into teacher and pupil sections will assist you in your quest to incorporate technology into your classroom.