From the CEO

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that government-sanctioned racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal and were unconstitutional. Psychology played a key role in this court case, especially in terms of the work of former APA President Dr. Kenneth Clark. The Brown decision is the focus of this month's Monitor. For me, Brown holds personal significance that I would like to reflect on in this column.

Greensboro demonstrations

The 1954 Brown decision foreshadowed the modern civil rights movement, for which my hometown of Greensboro, N.C., was a focal point. My parents were pastors at one of the city's largest African-American churches, which was the site for the planning of many civil rights marches that protested local Jim Crow laws and overt discriminatory practices against blacks. One of my most vivid memories from childhood is marching with my parents in downtown Greensboro in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations.

Greensboro is perhaps best known in civil rights circles as the site of the first sit-ins, which occurred in 1960 at the Woolworth's department store lunch counter. Woolworth's was a "5 and 10-cent store" (a much smaller predecessor of Kmart and Wal-Mart) whose lunch counter, like the other white-owned establishments in town, did not allow blacks to be seated for dining. On Feb. 1, 1960, four African-American freshman students from historically black A&T College in Greensboro (now N.C. A&T State University) decided to challenge this practice. They sat down at the Woolworth's lunch counter and requested service. They were refused service, but remained seated at the counter until the store closed that day. The sit-in continued the next day with more students and, by Feb. 3, 63 of the 65 dining seats at Woolworth's were occupied by black students. Within a week, hundreds of students and community members, black and white, descended on Woolworth's, Kress and other department stores to protest discriminatory dining rules. By spring of 1960, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities across the country. Because of the impact of the sit-ins, Woolworth's and other department stores integrated their dining facilities.

The Greensboro schools

A provision of the Brown court decision stated that school desegregation should occur "at all deliberate speed." Unfortunately, this poorly defined provision gave many cities a loophole to avoid taking any steps to integrate. In fact, it was not until 1971 that a desegregation plan was implemented in Greensboro. Prior to then, I attended racially segregated schools, which, although they had inferior materials and facilities, had incredibly creative and dedicated teachers who ensured that we received a quality education, despite the obstacles. In the summer of 1971, I was a rising junior at all-black Dudley High School, and I had just won an election that spring to become student body vice president for the next school term. But I received notice that I would instead be bused to previously all-white Grimsley High, one of the largest and most affluent public schools in the state. The integration of Grimsley and other schools in Greensboro occurred without incident, and for most of my black and white classmates, this was our first close exposure to members of the other race. Interestingly, one of my basketball teammates was a descendant of the proslavery governor Zebulon Vance, who led North Carolina during the Civil War. Both his ancestors and mine would have been amazed that we would become friends. Another thing I remember about Grimsley was that it offered several classes that were not offered at Dudley. One in particular was an advanced placement class titled "The World of Psychology," which I took, and which piqued my interest in the field.

Opportunities for blacks

The Brown decision outlawing racial segregation in the school system gave momentum to the movement to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the U.S. Congress. Such legislation included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination in public places, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing local practices that prevented blacks from voting.

I personally benefited from these laws, and have much gratitude for the sacrifices and dedication of those who risked their lives to ensure equality of opportunity. These and other laws created a society where someone like me could receive training in psychology at previously segregated universities, could become a professor in schools that blacks previously could not even attend and could attain leadership roles in institutions and organizations previously unwelcoming. I am proud of the role psychology played in Brown, a case that arguably set the stage for all that would follow in the civil rights movement, and which secured psychology's place as a discipline that is relevant to solving social problems.