Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Equality in Schools

To all men of good will, this decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of colored people throughout the world who had had a dim vision of the promised land of freedom and justice… this decision came as a legal and sociological deathblow to an evil that had occupied the throne of American life for several decades.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in 1956 at an annual luncheon of the National Committee for Rural Schools, reflecting on the importance of Brown v. Board of Education

By Regina Skyer

The laws that govern special education in our country are inextricably linked to the Civil Rights Movement. It is befitting that on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we acknowledge this link and express our gratitude for the impact that the civil rights movement continues to have in advancing the rights of children with disabilities in our school system.

Maybe you have heard the phrase, “Equal justice under law”? It is inscribed over the doors of the U.S. Supreme Court and comes from the Equal Protection Clause. It was enacted in 1868 as an effort to validate the equality provisions of the Civil Rights Act, the legislative culmination of the end of the Civil War and by extension, of slavery.

It was this idea, of equal justice under law, which served as the basis for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education, which, in rejecting the “separate but equal” doctrine that had upheld racial segregation in our nation’s schools, heralded the binding principle that in education separate is not equal.

The spark of excitement that the legal victory in Brown inspired could have turned to disillusionment when many school districts made it clear they had no intention of following the Court’s ruling. Instead, that spark caught fire and civil rights leaders like Dr. King made school desegregation a cornerstone demand of the new civil rights movement. 

In the ruling for Brown, the Court wrote, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” It is easy to see how this declaration, the principle of “separate is not equal,” and the front-page example of the hope, spirit, and struggle of this historic social movement taking on institutional racism, inspired parents and attorneys of disabled children. It was only after the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown that suing school districts for excluding or segregating children with disabilities was undertaken as a legal strategy.

Brown and the civil rights movement’s battle for desegregation paved the way for the law we know as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), upon which all rights for special education students are based. On this day that we remember Dr. King, let us not forget this enduring contribution.