The Scholar-Activists of Brown

Article excerpt

Scholars reflect on the intellectual contributions to the historic desegregation case

When asked by Thurgood Marshall during the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case to join a team of scholars to answer questions posed by the U.S. Supreme Court about the intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, Dr. John Hope Franklin didn't hesitate to accept.

"These searching and quite difficult questions sent legal counsel scurrying not to the history books but to the historians ... It was the historians who went scurrying to the sources, to read the minutes of the 1865-66 Joint Committee on Reconstruction, the debates in Congress and in the legislatures that ratified the 14th Amendment, the private correspondence of key figures of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and to survey public reaction and response to the events in Washington and the several states," according to Franklin.

For Franklin, commuting from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he had a faculty position to an NAACP office in New York City each weekend during the fall of 1953 and coordinating research on the 14th Amendment history provided one of the great highlights of his career as a historian. The crux of the Brown case was whether or not the separate-but-equal doctrine, which Whites used to justify segregated public facilities and schooling, was legal under the 14th Amendment, the constitutional amendment ratified in 1868 to guarantee equal protection of U.S. citizens.

"I've always felt it was a very important period in my life. I was surrounded by lawyers. I'm not claiming I was a principal figure in that operation, but they did show deference to me when I got to talk to them," he has said.

Franklin is not alone among Black scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries whose academic careers have embraced activism, much of it waged in the Black struggle for social and political equality in the United States. The scholar-activist model among Black intellectuals represents an established tradition that harks back to W.E.B. Du Bois and his 19th-century contemporaries. And nowhere does the African American scholar-activist model emerge more definitively and decisively than during the decades-long legal campaign for school desegregation that culminated in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In addition, Blacks having White intellectual allies proved pivotal to the struggle and signaled the transition White intellectuals were making in rejecting pseudoscientific theories of White racial superiority.

"Basically the intelligentsia of mid-20th century America, effectively supporting Brown, brought their prestige and intellect to bear... The fact that this interracial group of scholars, Kenneth Clark, John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward (had come together) was something quite noteworthy," says Leland Ware, the Louis L. Redding professor of law and public policy at the University of Delaware.

At the helm of the school desegregation campaign, Charles Hamilton Houston, a former dean of the Howard University law school, reigns as a preeminent African American scholar-activist as well as the architect of the legal strategy that would ultimately prevail in Brown. "The campaign was a product of an organized strategy. The strategy was developed in the early 1930s by Charles Houston. The blueprint was laid out and it was followed. It wasn't a happenstance or accidental thing," says Ware, who co-authored the book Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture and the Constitution.

Though Houston died in 1950, his former student and protege Thurgood Marshall would lead the campaign to victory, enlisting along the way the help of America's most talented Black intellectuals as well as prominent White allies. In addition to historians, sociologists and law professors examining constitutional history under Marshall's direction, the legal fight for school desegregation relied heavily upon the psychological research of Dr. …