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Updated 9:00 AM October 13, 2004




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Participants in Black English case remember obstacles, rewards

The Brown v. Board of Education case only did so much to further democracy, said Ken Lewis, partner for the law firm Plunkett & Clooney, during an event commemorating another landmark case.

"Brown v. Board didn't go far enough—it only got us in the classroom. It didn't develop the procedures to help educate [Black] students," he said.

Lewis and others met in the Modern Languages Building Oct. 1 for the 25-year reunion of the group of key participants in the 1979 case, Children of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School v. Ann Arbor District Schools, better known as the "Black English case."

The suit was filed and won on behalf of student speakers of Black English, a dialect that put them at an acute educational disadvantage, said Lewis, who served as counsel for the plaintiffs.

"These people worked hard to make what was, we think, an extension of Brown v. Board, because we wanted [King School] to take into account ethnic diversity between students," he said, pointing to those involved in the case.

The lawsuit arose when Ruth Zweifler, founder of the Ann Arbor Student Advocacy Center, and others began to notice that Black students of the school were labeled "learning disabled" and often were punished and discriminated against by teachers.

"At parent-teacher conferences, teachers told me, 'Why, he or she doesn't even know their colors,'" she said. "I wondered, did the students really not know their colors, or were they discouraged from displaying what they had learned?"

Robin Thomas, a then-student of the school who currently teaches at Dicken Elementary in Ann Arbor, said the emotional damage caused by her teachers' discrimination and ignorance is a lasting reminder of the students' need for the lawsuit.

"[Black students] were always in the lowest reading group, because [if you were Black] it was expected that you were going to be a slow reader," she said.

Thomas said there was a positive side to her experience, however.

"I believe that my background at King School helped me realize that I wanted to become a teacher. I wanted to understand students who struggled the hardest," she said.

The Department of Linguistics sponsored the commemorative events Oct. 1-2.

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