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Brown v. Board of Education at 60: Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger Reflects on its Threatened Legacy

Photo: Thurgood Marshall's NAACP legal team, including Columbia's Jack Greenberg (center, arms crossed), were instrumental in arguing Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the desegregation of American schools, 1954. Courtesy of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

President Lee C. Bollinger continues to be a vocal advocate for culturally diverse student bodies in higher education.

May 17 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education overruling the doctrine of “separate but equal” public education and finding that racially segregated public schools violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Columbia Law School faculty and alumni played an active role in this history by serving on Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP legal team for Brown and other pioneering civil rights litigation.

In more recent years, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger has been deeply engaged in major civil rights cases involving higher education that are among the contemporary legacies of Brown. As law dean and then president at the University of Michigan, Bollinger was a central figure in the 2003 Supreme Court cases—Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger—which upheld and clarified the importance of diversity as a compelling justification for affirmative action in higher education.

As those rulings have been narrowly upheld over the past two terms in cases such as Fisher v. University of Texas and Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Bollinger has continued — in lectures, media interviews and opinion articles — to be a vocal public advocate for not only the importance of racially and culturally diverse student bodies in American colleges and universities; but also for a broader understanding of how the history of slavery and legalized racial discrimination continue to provide an essential context for understanding the real barriers to equal opportunity for too many citizens.

Photo: School integration, Barnard School, Washington, D.C., 1955. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In the months leading up to Saturday’s anniversary of the Brown ruling Bollinger made a series of public appearances at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Rochester and the University of Kansas. In those forums he discussed how the current direction of both Supreme Court jurisprudence and political debate over race threaten the great moral power of Brown and much of the genuine progress in many areas of American life which it inspired. On the eve of the anniversary The New Yorker published a piece by President Bollinger summarizing these thoughts.

Photo: Elizabeth Eckford in front of Little Rock Central High School, Sept. 4, 1957. Courtesy of Bettmann/Corbis.

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Commentary by Lee C. Bollinger

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