The Lasting Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

Every year, on May 17, we honor the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. With its decision, the highest court of our nation took a stand against one form of racial discrimination, providing a legal and policy framework to ensure that all students, regardless of skin color, had equal access to a quality education.

The decision was the result of individual people choosing to speak truth to power, to use their own voices and tools to promote equality and justice. Whether it was civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall or courageous students such as Ruby Bridges, activists each did their duty and passed the baton on to the next generation.

Over 60 years later, we still see segregation in schools around the country. It is incredibly necessary that we all learn from the stories of human rights defenders like Thurgood Marshall and Ruby Bridges; that we all recognize and honor the ways in which they enacted change; that we all see human rights education, through storytelling, as one of the keys to creating activists who will build a world free of injustice, discrimination and violence.

At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, our education program, Speak Truth to Power (STTP), is taking strides to make this goal a reality. This past April, at an event with Kerry Kennedy and Congressman John Lewis, we launched the first student-developed STTP lesson plan on Ruby Bridges, adding the civil rights icon and education activist to our ever-growing and inspiring list of over 60 STTP Defenders. In Ruby Bridges’s story and work, we recognize the idea that guides us here at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights – one person, no matter how big or small, has the capacity to make a difference. Yet, what makes this lesson so unique is the development process which epitomizes our belief that the stories of the past and the present can galvanize this generation to make change. In rising to the challenge of creating something instructional, engaging and that inspires action, the Indianapolis students responsible for this incredible product took their first step towards making a difference and addressing the problem of education inequality throughout the nation. Michelle Haddix, their teacher and mentor, says “these young girls…spend…[their] summers and spring breaks traveling the city, speaking their truth to power, living out the legacy that Ruby Bridges built for them.”

Building on this momentum, we are thrilled to announce a special lesson plan package to honor the activism of Robert F. Kennedy and the community of his contemporaries that were just as dedicated to positive change. In this series of 7 lesson plans, we will highlight and engage with human rights defenders from 1968 and 2018. Based on the issues on which Robert F. Kennedy focused during his lifetime, each lesson plan will spotlight two human rights defenders – one from the past, one from the present – who has worked or is currently working on the featured issue. With these lesson plans, we are creating opportunities for students to draw connections; to better understand the history of the problems that continue to challenge us; to compare the ways in which people have addressed these issues over the years; and to see themselves as the next person to carry on the torch for change. Featuring a variety of activists such as Thurgood Marshall, LaDonna Harris and César Chavez, the series will also spotlight Ruby Bridges as the “Then” Defender for her work on civil rights and education. With a launch date set for later this year, these lesson plans will not only honor RFK’s legacy, but also remind us of the enduring power of landmark events, decisions and actions such as today’s to continue to inspire and spark change.

So on today’s anniversary, we are honoring the past work of people who always asked “why not” and looking to the next generation to do just the same.