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School Desegregation Battle: A Thing of the Past . . . and the Present

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- "Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America" has returned to its original home at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte after a long time on the road. It took the story of the South Carolina case that led to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision -- striking down school segregation -- to Atlanta, Baltimore, New York and the Museum of Tolerance, a Simon Wiesenthal Center museum in Los Angeles. Parts of the exhibition were used in a tour of South African museums arranged by the U.S. State Department.

As it moves back into the Levine, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, the historical perspective of "Courage" could not be timelier. It comes as the country stops to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though part of his dream -- equal educational opportunity for all children – is marred by achievement gaps and high dropout rates. The conflicts of more than 50 years ago echo today, though divisions are as much economic as racial. And an added section, on the 1946 U.S. Court of Appeals case Mendez v. Westminster School District in California, which ended school segregation for Mexican-Americans, expands the issue beyond black and white.

Brown vs. Board of EducationIt has become much more complicated since Levi Pearson, of Clarendon County, S.C., filed a lawsuit because taxes paid for 30 buses to carry white children to schools of brick and stucco while black children walked nine miles to unheated wooden one-room schools without indoor plumbing.

Today in Charlotte, proposals to balance shrinking budgets have led to complaints that school closings and assignment changes discriminate against black and Hispanic students. The U.S. Education Department is investigating. Deciding how to celebrate King's day has itself started a debate after it was announced that Monday would be a snow make-up day for Charlotte-Mecklenburg students. The president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP urged parents to keep children home to acknowledge King's legacy; Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is African-American, said it was "regrettable" that the snow make-up day was Monday but that it was important for children to attend school when it is in session.

In Wake County, North Carolina, a new school board's return to neighborhood assignments will mean less racial and socioeconomic diversity. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized the decision in a letter in Thursday's Washington Post. It said that complaints have "prompted an investigation by our Office for Civil Rights, but it should also prompt a conversation among educators, parents and students across America about our core values. Those core values, embodied in our founding documents, subsequent amendments and court rulings, include equity and diversity in education and opportunity."

In 2004, the "Courage" exhibition "touched a nerve" and exceeded all attendance expectations because the story "resonated with everyone," according to Levine president Emily Zimmern. Today, it leads to questions, "ones our whole community is wrestling with," she said, such as "what is the meaning of equal educational opportunity in the 21st century?" In the exhibition's yearlong stay, the museum has planned a series of programs and conversations, such as one featuring Fox News commentator Juan Williams.

That one asks: "Courage: Where Do We Need It Now?"

The events of the 1940s and 1950s offered clear examples of heroic actions. A case from Topeka, Kansas, gave the historic 1954 decision its name. But it was a brave group of South Carolinians (five cases were combined in Brown) who took on the fight when they had everything, including their lives, to lose, when Jet magazine had to organize food lifts because merchants refused to sell to them.

Harry Briggs, a service station attendant, and his wife, Eliza, a maid, signed first and second on a 1949 petition for educational equality and lent their names to the original Briggs v. Elliott suit. Like others who stood up in public, they lost their jobs and livelihood and were forced to eventually leave home.

The Rev. J.A. DeLaine led the fight, though his church was torched -- a charred Bible remains -- and his home burned while the fire department stood by watching the flames. When he returned shotgun fire to mark the car of those shooting into his house, he was forced into exile, escaping that night and never able to go home. (In 2000, more than 25 years after his death, South Carolina cleared him of all charges.)

They convinced Thurgood Marshall to take a case he first thought was too rural, too poor, too far, and he eventually argued it before the Supreme Court. With Pearson, they received Congressional Gold Medals of Honor, posthumously, in 2004.

It's much easier to recognize their courage than face current challenges. However, "if you begin to know the history," said museum historian and "Courage" curator Tom Hanchett, "the conversation gets wiser."

Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.

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