Moments in Memory: Superintendent Bryan Johnson reflects on Brown v. Board of Education

Linda Brown stands in front of Sumner School in Topeka, Kansas, in this May 8, 1964, file photo. The refusal of the school to admit Brown, then 9 years old, in 1951, led to the Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka lawsuit in which the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that schools nationwide must be desegregated.

Bryan Johnson has understood the meaning and impact of Brown v. the Board of Education his whole life - personally as a black man growing up in the South and professionally as a teacher, principal and superintendent.

In his mid-30s, the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools is comfortable with the issue of race in public education.

Still, as Johnson absorbs the banner headlines and front pages from the two newspapers in Chattanooga announcing the end of desegregation on May 17-18, 1954, his reaction was simple.

"Wow," he says.

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There was nothing in the Chattanooga Daily Times leading up to May 17, 1954, that would have prepared readers in Chattanooga for the unanimous Supreme Court ruling that would desegregate public education.

At the center of the case was Linda Brown, who was a third-grader at the time and wanted to enroll at a school in Kansas. She was denied based on the color of her skin. Her case would cement her place in history.

In the week prior to the ruling, neither the Daily Times nor Chattanooga News-Free Press reported or editorialized about a ruling that would shake the South for the next decade.

Both papers were focused on the televised hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his charge that the U.S. Army was "soft" on communism.

There was no 24-hour news cycle demanding content.

The news broke midday in America when the court overturned the concept of "separate but equal" that was the law of the land since 1896. The court said separate was not equal and that separating students based on race was unconstitutional. The ruling started the process of desegregating schools in the South that lasted for decades. Chattanooga would not begin desegregation until 1962 and only after civil rights leader James Mapp filed Mapp v. the Board of Education in 1960.

The afternoon News-Free Press headline read, "SUPREME COURT OUTLAWS SEGREGATION IN SCHOOLS." The pro-segregation paper only had time for one additional story that carried the headline "Southern Upheaval Expected."

The next morning, the Daily Times banner headline read, "SCHOOL SEGREGATION IS UPSET BY SUPREME COURT 9-0 RULING." It also included a third line on the McCarthy hearings.

The advantage of 12 additional hours for the story to evolve allowed the morning paper of May 18, 1954, to have six stories on the court ruling on Page A1, including a story on Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge saying the U.S. Constitution had become a "scrap of paper" and a story saying 700,000 students in 3,870 schools would be affected by the ruling.

The ideologies of the two newspapers were different as both editorialized on the desegregation ruling on May 18. The Daily Times, owned by the family of New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, supported desegregation as it had other advances for African-Americans. The News-Free Press, owned by Roy McDonald, was pro-segregation. Then, as it does now, the community had two editorial pages where different ideologies were voiced.

The Daily Times said, "The man who thinks that a social custom of a century can be immediately overthrown without dangerous repercussion is stupid. On the other hand, we believe that those who preach that the South will not eventually conform to the Supreme Court opinion when given time for readjustments and gradual and peaceful local conferences between white and colored people are disregarding that this is a country of law and that however unpalatable to individual minds a law may be it is eventually accepted."

The editorial continued, "We believed that progress made towards equality for all races gave promise that all of our problems would eventually be solved," while adding, "We believe further that with all of its so-called mercurial temperament on these racial questions, the South has in fact a deeper sympathy for the Negro race than any other section of this country."

The paper ending its editorial: "The Negroes themselves, while no doubt hailing this opinion as their greatest advance since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, will fear the loss of positions for thousands of Negro schoolteachers and when the day comes when segregation is ended they will be timid about sending their children to the white schools."

The News-Free Press was more overt in its views: "The News-Free Press, which favors just treatment of Negroes and all other citizens of the United States, regrets this ruling by our liberal-packed Supreme Court and thinks it deplorably unwise. It would have been far better, in our opinion, if the court had continued to permit segregation but had insisted on real equalities of facilities. We do not think the real best interest of either race can be served by forcing unwanted contact between them. We think such questions should be left to the states, where the authors of the Constitution certainly intended they should be left."

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Johnson takes time to read both editorials that were written three decades before he was born, and he gets a snapshot of the community where he now leads the school system that has high expectations to address some of the same issues that faced schools here in 1954.

Hamilton County still has schools that are virtually all white and schools that are virtually all black more than six decades later. However, Johnson, as a millennial, doesn't see today's challenges through the lens of race.

"You understand the history of where freedom was initially and how it evolved over time, but I don't know that I have given much thought to it because I've grown up in the South," he says. "You are accustomed to your community and how it received things like this.

"You talk about the racial breakdown of schools and how they are racially constructed, and so much of it goes beyond the schoolhouse. It's really about the total community, housing, infrastructure and access to jobs. There are reasons for the demographics of schools that go way beyond the building.

"I think we are in a fundamentally different place, and that is what makes that ruling of the Supreme Court so historic. That nine-member body that is the highest legal authority, said 'No, this is what we believe is right.' It was fundamental, hard change that doesn't happen overnight. Desegregating public education, man, that is big change. You just don't flip the switch on something like that.

"When I look at what's written, again I wasn't there, it's hard to put context to it. When I read it today, I read it as a response to what is happening here right now. That's why it's important to have history to be able to go back and look. America has evolved. I would like to think if you could interview people on both sides they may have a completely different perspective now that we have lived this change for 60 years.

"I think the word 'promise' here is what sticks out to me. I talk frequently about the promise that exists without our children and the realization of the promise that even then, all meant all, an exceptional public education experience for all. I think that promise that exists is evident today."

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