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May 17, 2004: Where Will You Be?

- by Dr. Lenola Sommerville

Where were you on May 17, 1954? Where were your significant others? The first question is for pre­baby boomers and baby boomers. The second relates to post baby boomers. Regardless of your age, you should have an answer. On that infamous day, a great decision was handed down by the United States Supreme Court. The Court ended federally sanctioned racial segregation in the public school by ruling unanimously that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The 50th anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education is approaching. Many education agencies are dedicating their academic year 2003 - ­2004 to celebrating the occasion. Some groups will limit their commemoration to one day in May. Where will you be on May 17, 2004? How will you commemorate the event? Will you be deluged with anniversary stories through print and non print media? Will you be involved in reacting to diverse courses of debate? Are there planned religious events, conferences, lectures, seminars, experiential activities in Kansas, exhibits, and special music performance that will occupy your attention? Will NACWC, Inc. and Youth Affiliates (through you) be visible? All of these questions are about something that happened mid—20th century and its impact in the 21st century.

The Brown versus Board of Education decision was made possible because of the vision, courage, sacrifice, and knowledge of diverse people who were determined to bring this and other issues to the forefront of America's consciousness. We know of Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, the Supreme Court, NAACP, and the Brown Family of Topeka, Kansas. Yes, they contributed much to the foundation of civil rights movement in the 50s, 60s, and beyond.

We must, however, think of other individuals whose vision, courage sacrifice, and knowledge worked to bring issues of quality of life to the forefront of America's consciousness. They are known as the founders and earlier officers of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc. Our organization is built on 100+ years of a legacy of strength that placed activism in the forefront as related to education, home, family living, moral/economic/social/ religious welfare, civil and political rights, and interracial understanding regarding the quality of life for all people, especially African Americans. We can document pioneer women who fought to end the caste system of race, thus refusing to face the indignities of Jim Crow segregation. There are those who challenged injustice where ever they saw it and became well-known abolitionists and activists. Our history identifies women who helped each other and shared their love, energy, time, resources, and skills to keep families and communities viable.

Earlier, I asked about our organization and its visibility during this historic 50th anniversary celebration. The Association will only be present if we ensure its presence. How can we do this? We should be models of our pioneers who worked for the education and empowerment of families. This holiday should be a reminder to NACWC, Inc. and Youth Affiliates about how far we've come, and how far we still have to go. Caste systems based on race, wealth, religion, education, job classification, skin color, sex and gender, and others were wrong in earlier centuries and they are wrong in this, the twenty-first century.

Building on the past, we continue to have powerful women leadership for our Association. We can, as in the past, show communities how much we have to offer and how much they can and will gain through our leadership and involvement. We must make them aware of our unwavering champions of civil rights, human rights, and dignity. Our legacy includes strong, forceful advocates for the attainment of sound quality of life. Their voices constituted the call to action. Therefore, on May 17, 2004, our celebratory challenge must be: A Call to Action!

It is true, Brown versus Board of Education focused primarily on education equity. We, as strong women, focus on the holistic quality of life. This includes, but is not limited to issues related to deprivation of freedom, crippling hatred, closed and denied doors of opportunity, and social injustice. It is important for each of us to (1) remain or become involved in local civic groups that encourage diversity and racial harmony, (2) actively participate in the political process at all levels, and (3) continue to educate ourselves on civil rights and other legislative initiatives and progress as they relate to women, children, and homes.

I especially appreciate Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania regarding her views on how far we've come since Brown. She said: "One measure of Brown is how much racial segregation we have in our schools today. But Brown was also about trying to improve the quality of education for our children. ... And until we do achieve what Brown laid out, it remains important, not for what we haven't done but for yet we have to do."

Although our 2004 Convention will convene after the May 17th celebration, we will personally commemorate this event. Each of us will join others as they recognize and analyze social changes brought about by this historic civil rights decision. As Club Sisters, we will renew the spirit of social justice that contributed such commitment to this important cause 50 years ago through Brown versus Board of Education. We will talk about the struggle for racial equity. Let's also do this in Philadelphia!