In commenting on the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing legal segregation in public education, historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr. observed that,
Brown deserves to be recognized for its enormously liberating impact on America and the world. Post-Brown American society was forced to look deep within itself and confront the fundamental problem of white racism and its impact on whites and blacks alike.... Reflecting unconditional faith in the best of the founding American ideals, Brown signifies hope for America's future. It stands for a better America: a humane, inclusive, and free America. (1)
Echoing themes found in the legal scholarship of Mark Tushnet and Katya Lezin, Martin pointed out that Brown "has profoundly influenced the evolution of 'rights consciousness' within American society--that is, judicial activism on behalf of human rights," most notably those of oppressed groups and individuals. (2) Because of Brown's liberating effects on American society, its vindication of the nation's original egalitarian ideals, and its importance in the ongoing legal campaigns to end racial oppression, it is essential that young students have access to resources offering a clear and accurate analysis of the decision and its significance in U.S. history. In an effort to understand how well this objective is being met by some educational materials currently available, this essay will draw on current historical scholarship to evaluate representations of Brown in selected books and other resources for students at the middle school level. These resources will be evaluated as historical and pedagogical texts, and I will draw upon my personal experiences as a history educator in assessing these materials.
Historians David Hackett Fisher and James M. McPherson in the introduction to their book series, Pivotal Moments in American History, articulated the "current state of historical writing," pointing to the "growing attention to the experiences of ordinary people, increasing sensitivity to issues of gender, class, and ethnicity, and deep interest in large structures and processes." New historical studies "seek to combine this new scholarship with old ideas of history as a narrative art and traditional models of sound scholarship, mature judgment, and good writing." (3) Drawing on this standard for historical writing, the middle school texts to be valued most highly will be those that: (1) include ordinary people's stories along with the stories of famous leaders; (2) are sensitive to gender, class, race, and ethnicity issues; (3) make connections between individual events and larger national and international structures and institutions; and (4) exhibit good storytelling and a strong grasp of the historical facts.
With regard to pedagogical approaches, in their essay "Making Sense of Accounts of History," Margaret G. McKeown and Isabel L. Beck provided some useful and specific information about what it means for an historical text to tell a story well. They valued most highly texts that (1) use a narrative structure that is causal, explanatory, and engaging, and (2) give "voice to the humanity of events being portrayed and the threads that connect them to principles, motivations, and consequences." (4)
With regard to my teaching experience, for five years I served as Director of Education at an eighteenth-century historic house museum in the northeastern United States. A Revolutionary War historical site and the scene of visits by Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John and Abigail Adams, Aaron Burr, and William Lee, an enslaved African and personal attendant to George Washington during the Revolution, the museum offers rich opportunities for education in early American history. Following the lead of many public schools' curricular emphasis on the use of primary source materials in social studies courses, I developed and taught educational modules for middle and high school classes in which students combined the study of material culture with primary source documents to illuminate the history of egalitarian ideals in the Revolutionary era and the early years of the United States. The histories of women, Africans, and African Americans were emphasized in these modules. The great value of using primary source materials in which students encounter voices directly from the past is that they can spark students' interest in history, and help them to think and write critically using the relevant evidence to support their conclusions.
In this essay the educational resources to be evaluated are books for middle school students that present the stories of leaders and participants in the Civil Rights Movement, and histories of the women's rights movement in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century. The decision to include histories of women's rights together with histories of African American civil rights campaigns is justified because, as Waldo Martin has noted, the Brown decision "contributed enormously to subsequent civil rights battles and social movements on behalf of the marginalized, including other peoples of color, women, gays and lesbians, and the disabled." (5)
Eight middle school texts will be evaluated. The accounts of events leading up to and following the Brown decision will be assessed. Of the eight texts, five are centered specifically on the history of the Civil Rights Movement: James Haskins's The Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Della Rowland's Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Dream of Peaceful Revolution, Shyrlee Dallard's Ella Baker: A Leader Behind the Scenes, Brenda Wilkinson's Jesse Jackson: Still Fighting for the Dream, and Ellen Levine's Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories. Of these five texts, the first four are biographies of civil rights leaders, and the last is comprised primarily of recent interviews with individuals who participated in the Civil Rights Movement as children or youths. The other three texts are middle school level women's rights histories: Christine A. Lunardini's Women's Rights, Elaine Tyler May's Pushing the Limits: American Women, 1940-1961, and William H. Chafe's The Road to Equality: American Women Since 1962. (6)
In addition to presenting commentary on the specific strengths and weaknesses of each text based on the criteria offered by historians and educators, general comments will also be made about how the resources handled the assimilationist thrust of the Brown decision, which endorsed the view that African American children should be completely integrated into the "superior white" culture; and whether or not the ruling is examined within the context of the developing international discourse on the expansion of "human rights."
ANTECEDENTS TO BROWN
In order to represent the significance of Brown for young readers, representations of the decision must describe what life was like before this ruling was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In keeping with McKeown and Beck's call for making causal connections explicit, Shyrlee Dallard in her biography of Ella Baker pointed out the historical reality that under the "separate but equal" standard set by the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, "almost anything marked for blacks [segregated educational resources, transport facilities, restaurants, eating facilities] received less care and attention than things that were intended for whites." (7) Ellen Levine, in portraying the experiences of her interviewees who were student activists, emphasized the variety within African American schooling in the segregated South. Some teachers were uneasy about racial and political issues and avoided addressing them, while others worked to give their students a sense of pride in African American achievements by emphasizing …