By Jerry Spindel
M ay 17 marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared
“separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. To
commemorate the occasion, teachers talked to MTA
Today about their classroom approaches to teaching
about the ruling, and retired members of the MTA
Minority Affairs Committee shared their memories
of the landmark 1954 decision.
The following are excerpts from the interviews.
Angela Plant: “Look around the classroom,”
Plant tells her class. “If you were students in
the South back then, before Brown v. Board of
Education, you wouldn’t be allowed to be in diverse
classrooms. You’d be in segregated classrooms.”
Plant teaches American history at Worcester
Technical High School, where President Barack
Obama will deliver the commencement address on
June 11. WTHS was named a Breakthrough School
by the MetLife/National Association of Secondary
School Principals in 2011 for outstanding student
growth in a high-poverty area.
Plant’s students trace the fight for civil rights
from the 14th Amendment — which declares that
all citizens are entitled to “equal protection of the
laws” — to the present. They also cover incendiary
and controversial occurrences such as the violence
that greeted the enrollment in 1962 of James
Meredith at the University of Mississippi and the
1978 Supreme Court case in which Allan P. Bakke
argued unsuccessfully that affirmative action was
As they study such issues, Plant said, her
students “sit in a circle and pass a beanbag.”
“Whoever gets the beanbag has to discuss the
topic at hand,” she explained. “The discussion is
pretty intense for some kids.”
Plant’s students dissect the 14th Amendment
“and they explain exactly what it’s saying,” she said.
“We also discuss how the civil rights struggle has
affected the values of the nation.”
John Marderosian: “Minority opinions don’t
go for naught,” Marderosian tells his 11th-grade
American history class at Southbridge Middle/High
School. “They resurface,” he noted, citing the way
the minority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson helped
shape the arguments made by plaintiffs’ attorney
Thurgood Marshall — then the NAACP’s chief
counsel — that prevailed in Brown.
“The kids say insightful things and ask a lot
of questions, like, ‘Why are there still pockets of
racism?’” Marderosian said. “I use these questions in
my teaching.” Marderosian asks his students about
changing the prevailing views of a society. “If laws
are enforced, incidents go down. But that doesn’t
change the mentality,” he tells them.
Marderosian uses a multidisciplinary approach
to teaching. “I use sociology, psychology, statistics,
poetry, economic history, historical thinking skills,”
he said. He covers “what’s changed, what’s stayed
the same, and why.” Marderosian also teaches his
students to use a computer graphing program so they
can trace immigration patterns.
“I try to offer skills that kids can take away
with them — skills that colleges and first employers
demand,” Marderosian explained.
Cathy Fischer-Mueller: At the Edward Devotion
School in Brookline, Fischer-Mueller uses primary
documents in her eighth-grade social studies class.
“We start by revisiting Plessy, the ruling that upheld
the doctrine of separate but equal,” she said. “Then
we examine the words of the 14th Amendment,
which guarantees equal protection of the law to all
United States citizens.”
Fischer-Mueller’s class studies the legal cases
that led up to the Brown decision.
Her students learn Marshall’s prevailing argument
in Brown, that “separate but equal” was inherently
unequal and psychologically damaging to African-
Americans. They learn how Marshall expanded upon
Justice John Harlan’s dissent in Plessy, which stated:
“Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows
nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
Fischer-Mueller uses videos from the 1987 PBS
TV series “Eyes on the Prize,” which documented the
civil rights movement, along with a study guide on the
series by Facing History and Ourselves, a Brookline-
based organization dedicated to teaching young people
about racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.
“The kids get excited by events like the struggle
to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock,”
Fischer-Mueller said. “They like it because it’s
heroic,” she added, referring to the African-American
teenagers who faced hostile crowds and an Arkansas
governor intent on defying the law.
Fischer-Mueller remarked on the Massachusetts
Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling legalizing gay
marriage in November 2003. The court gave the
Legislature six months to change the law, and exactly
50 years after the Brown decision, the first same-sex
marriages were celebrated.
“Laws against gays created a form of
segregation,” she said. “I think the justices had their
eye on history when they chose that date.”
Louise Gaskins, former chair of the MTA
Human and Civil Rights Council and member of
the Minority Affairs Committee: In 1954, Gaskins
was teaching mathematics in an all-black high school
in Winston-Salem, N.C. When news of the Brown
decision came over the radio, she said, “I ran across
the hall to my friend, an English teacher, and we
jumped up and down and hugged each other.” But by
1961, the schools there were still segregated.
Gaskins, who taught mathematics in Ayer for
30 years, moved north in 1964 with her husband, an
Army officer. When she enrolled at Fitchburg State
College as a graduate student, it was the first time
she attended an integrated school.
Edith Cannon, a former MAC chair
and member of the NEA Minority Affairs
Committee: Cannon was 14 years old and in the
10th grade in Greenville, Miss., when the Brown
decision was handed down. She didn’t notice any
changes for a long time. “Mississippi was slow
moving forward,” she said.
Cannon began her teaching career in Greenville
and later moved north and taught elementary and
middle school in Randolph. She retired as an
elementary school principal in Taunton.
According to Cannon, Greenville was a better
place to grow up than many other cities and towns
in the South. “When it came to racism, it wasn’t as
blatant,” she said. “We had a liberal newspaper that
helped in many ways. There was also an Air Force
base in the city.”
Still, the schools were segregated. “We never
got books that weren’t used by white students first,”
Cannon said. “They tried to make the schools look
the same on the outside, but not the inside.”
Cannon attended Tougaloo College in
Mississippi, a center of the civil rights struggle
and home of one of the early lunch-counter sit-ins.
“Medgar Evers came two or three times a week to
organize us. James Meredith came,” she said. “We
sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ at rallies; I locked arms
with Martin Luther King Jr. It was really special. We
felt we were part of a movement that had to happen.”
Mayers had been raised in Providence. She was
surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown.
“I didn’t expect it with nine white men up there,” she
said, “but I was pleased.”
Providence wasn’t free of racism, but attending
a black college in the South — Livingstone College
in North Carolina — “was a revelation,” she said.
“You could go into a department store, but they
would ask you not to try anything on.”
When Mayers started teaching middle school
in Rockland, a friendly School Committee member
High school history teacher Angela Plant uses
the Brown v. Board of Education decision to
spark discussion among her students.
Photo by Scott McLennan
Please turn to Teachers/Page 11