After he went blind, my friend and mentor, the late Oliver W. Hill let me be one of his "readers." Several times we read Richard Kluger's 798-page Simple Justice, a history of Brown vs. Board of Education.
When he asked me to read the book a third or fourth time, I asked, "Why?" "Because we are not finished yet," he said. "We've barely begun." "And," he added, "do not ever engage in a discussion of the re-segregation of Richmond's schools they've never been de-segregated."
Mr. Hill often noted that while the unanimous decision in Brown opened the front door of the schoolhouse for blacks, the 5-4 decision in Milliken -- which made cross-jurisdictional busing very difficult -- opened the back door for white flight.
Justice Thurgood Marshall's dissent noted that poor Negro children would continue to receive "the same inherently unequal education in the future as they have been unconstitutionally afforded in the past." "In the short run," wrote Marshall, "it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into cities -- one white, the other black -- but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret."
Notwithstanding his always cordial demeanor with Lewis Powell, the swing vote in Milliken, Mr. Hill observed that Powell did nothing to integrate Richmond's schools. When Powell stepped down as Richmond's School Board chairman in 1961, "precisely two black children" attended the city's public school with white students.
Richmond still suffers the effects of Milliken. The schools are not integrated, and more African-American males go to prison than to college. Despite real progress, we still have a shameful graduation rate, an abysmal dropout rate, and sky-rocketing suspension rates. We also have near total non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, thus denying "simple access" to our most vulnerable citizens.
Where do we go from here?
Before enacting NCLB sanctions and dismantling public education, we should revisit Milliken and consider what our nation might be like today had that decision gone the other way. Let us find a way to recapture that missed opportunity for equality.
We can begin by re-reading Simple Justice. As Mr. Hill said: "We are not finished yet. We've barely begun."