Thursday, May 17, 2018

Brown v. Board of Education: May 17, 1954

One of the landmark Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, was handed down on May 17, 1954.  Striking down separate but equal facilities, the decision had far-reaching effects. 

And yet implementation was slow, and southern states adopted measures to impede the directive.  Especially strong was the organized effort in Virginia, where a massive resistance initiative was led by Harry F. Byrd, the state’s senior U.S. senator.  The Prince Edward County public schools in southcentral Virginia shut down operations for a decade to avoid complying with the Supreme Court ruling to integrate.

I have been researching James Baldwin—for both my current and next book—and he had a skeptical assessment of the decision.   In his book The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, he judged Brown to be motivated by geopolitics rather than on issues of equality. 

He said, “White Americans have contented themselves with gestures that are now described as ‘tokenism.’  Perhaps.  It all depends on how one reads the word ‘progress.’  Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.”

Among the notable people involved in Brown was Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer for the NAACP, a plaintiff, who went on to be appointed as the first African-American on the Supreme Court.  President Eisenhower was cool to the idea of integration and had actually lobbied against the plaintiffs with Chief Justice Earl Warren; the ruling, however, was unanimous. 

The “Brown” in the decision was Oliver Brown, the father of Linda Brown, who attempted to be the first African-American to attend an elementary school in the Kansas state capital.  Ironically, the school, Sumner Elementary School, was launched to educate African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Linda Brown died two months ago at the age of 75.

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