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Brown v. Board of Education Anniversary Discussion and Book Launch - What the Supreme Court did, why it did it, and what happened next

May 13, 2004 // 12:00am

The 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education striking down laws mandating segregated education has generated numerous reassessments of the impact of the case. The Division of United States Studies ended its multi-event examination of Brown and its consequences by launching two books that examine both the initial reaction to the case and its effects on the United States today.

Although the Brown decision is remembered as one that was unanimous, Prof. Michael Klarman reminded the audience, it was a difficult one for the justices of the 1954 Supreme Court. Many of them believed that segregation was morally wrong but completely legal, as it had not been banned by either the Fourteenth Amendment or Court decisions interpreting the Amendment in the 86 years since it was ratified. Justices Robert Jackson and Felix Frankfurter, the intellectual leaders of the Court, believed that personal opinions should not drive judicial actions. At the same time, each of them had significant experiences that led them to want to ban segregation. Jackson's work as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the post-World War II Nuremburg trials and Frankfurter's organizational work with the NAACP reflected and solidified their convictions about the equality of humanity. Nonetheless, their judicial philosophies prevented them from striking segregation down unless it was proven to be legally as well as morally unacceptable.

They were able to find the proof they needed because most of the justices also believed that the law had to reflect societal norms, and Klarman suggested that a combination of four factors were driving the nation—at least the parts of it outside the South—toward a new consensus that segregation was wrong. The first was the pro-democracy, pro-equality ideology relied upon by the United States during World War II; the second, the willingness of African-American veterans returning from that war to fight for their rights. The third factor was the Cold War and the need for American society to increase its appeal to third-world countries by offering an egalitarian alternative to communism. Finally, the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North had made northern African-Americans a frequently decisive voting bloc, especially in presidential elections. The new consensus was reflected in phenomena as disparate as President Harry Truman's decision to integrate the military and the civil service in 1948, Justice Frankfurter's hiring of the first African-American Supreme Court clerk, the inclusion of African-Americans on minor league baseball teams, the increase in the availability of graduate education for African-Americans, and the beginnings of the integration of police forces and juries—even in the South. It was these attitudinal changes that made Brown possible.

Brown, Klarman said, forced Americans to take a stand on desegregation. Ironically, those who did so most determinedly were white Southern politicians who both feared the end of their way of life and found strong opposition to school integration a useful tool for political mobilization. Thus, Klarman argued, the link between Brown and the civil rights movement should not be overstated. The initial apparent success of the Brown litigation actually discouraged direct action against segregation in the 1950s, instead encouraging African-Americans to favor legal challenges that ultimately proved ineffective. The crucial moments in desegregation efforts came in the early 1960s, when growing African-American frustration at the slow pace of integration led to the adoption of alternative resistance strategies, white Southerners reacted with violence, and television beamed the violence into white Northerners' homes. There was a direct connection, Klarman asserted, between the graphic images of violence in Greensboro and Birmingham and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was not Brown or other court decisions but President Lyndon Johnson's use of the 1964 Act to threaten cutoffs of funds to Southern schools that ultimately resulted in Southern school desegregation.

Assessing Brown's impact on the United States, Prof. Cottrol called it one of the single most important cases in American constitutional history—but, at the same time, one that demonstrates the limitations of law in addressing structural inequality. He credited Brown with causing "seismic changes" in American attitudes, which in turn can be seen in the growth of the black professional class and the presence of African Americans in government and the upper ranks of the military, as well as in the visibility of interracial family life. Racism no longer has official support in this country, but the white middle class has pulled its children out of urban public schools and today nearly 50% of the nation's African-American schoolchildren are in 90% black schools; black students are afraid that academic achievement will make them vulnerable to charges of "acting white"; the African-American poverty rate remains disproportionately high; the black male unemployment rate is twice that for white men; more than 50% of African-American children are being raised by a single parent; inner-city African Americans experience near-total residential segregation; and police forces still utilize racial profiling. Discrimination and inequality are harder to fight today, Cottrol said, because there are no longer any signs overtly proclaiming their social acceptability. But, with all its failures, Brown was a major step in the elimination of the race-based caste system and in the creation of a national conversation that must continue if discrimination and inequality are to be erased.

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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