Pitt commemorates Brown decision


In 1959, Derrick Bell and a few of his friends decided to attempt to desegregate a downtown… In 1959, Derrick Bell and a few of his friends decided to attempt to desegregate a downtown Pittsburgh restaurant.

When he arrived, he found that none of his friends had shown up, and upon entering the restaurant alone, he was denied service.

Although he failed to integrate the restaurant that day, Bell is able to look back on that day as one of the first steps towards his fight for racial equality.

“Whether I was wise in going in there is another story,” he said.

Bell was the keynote speaker in an all-day symposium marking the 50-year anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

Bell is a visiting law professor at the New York University School of Law and a New York Times best-selling author for his book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.”

Bell spoke before a large audience in the William Pitt Union ballroom on Friday, during a luncheon honoring his achievements in the fight for racial equality.

Bell began by comparing the Brown decision to the Emancipation Proclamation, in that neither had substantial public support for their implementation. The benefits of both were more symbolic than real for the black population.

“As a legal matter, the proclamation freed no slaves” Bell said, as the proclamation only applied to places under the control of the Confederacy. “Slave-holding territories which had sided with the Union were carefully excluded,” he added.

Bell explained that the real motivation for Lincoln issuing the proclamation was not to advance racial equality but to prevent France and England from supporting the Confederacy, as well as to disrupt the southern workforce.

“It also opened the way for the enlistment of blacks,” Bell said. “And by the war’s end, more than 200,000 blacks served in the Union army, and fought and died in disproportionate numbers.”

Bell used the same concept for the Brown decision: it benefited the white population more than the black.

“The Brown decision was likely motivated by the need to counteract reports of segregation and lynching that received international attention,” Bell said.

Bell spoke about the role the Brown decision plays in today’s society.

“The Brown decision, while never overturned, has become irrelevant,” he said. “Today, we find most black and Hispanic students [are] attending public schools that are both racially separate and educationally ineffective.”

Bell laid out three rules he saw when comparing various civil rights decisions and policies from the last two centuries.

“The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when that interest converges with the interest of whites in policy-making decisions,” Bell said about the first rule.

Bell’s second rule stated that even when there is the potential for advancement in race relations, many policy makers try to prevent it as soon as it begins to threaten the superior status of whites.

Bell cited the recent setbacks in achieving racial equality as an example of the third rule.

“The rights of blacks are always vulnerable,” he said.

When asked what the next symbol of racial equality might be, Bell stressed the power of people.

“I think we should stop looking for symbols; we should stop looking for leaders. The great barrier is getting people who are oppressed to realize they are oppressed,” Bell said.

When asked about his views about whether the Supreme Court will seek to erode civil rights in the future, Bell looked at the present.

“They have pretty much overridden everything already.”