The Significance of Brown

By Ogletree, Charles J., Jr. | Judicature, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Significance of Brown

Ogletree, Charles J., Jr., Judicature

Brown's success in ending legal segregation in education is undeniable, yet various forms of resistance have effectively limited its promise.

On May 17, 1954, an otherwise uneventful Monday afternoon, 15 months into Dwight D. Elsenhower's presidency, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, issued a historic ruling that he and his colleagues hoped would irrevocably change the social fabric of the United States. "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate-but-equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."1 Thurgood Marshall, who had passionately argued the case before the Court, joined a jubilant throng of other civil rights leaders in hailing this decision as the Court's most significant opinion of the 20th century. The New York Times extolled the Brown decision as having "reaffirmed its faith and the underlying American faith in the equality of all men and all children before the law."2

President Elsenhower, who later described the appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice as the worst decision he had ever made, was not as jubilant. At a White House dinner, he told Warren, "[Southern whites] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes."3 Eisenhower added, "It is difficult through law and through force to change a man's heart."4 His heart, however, seemed to be with the opponents of integration.

At the time, no one doubted the far-reaching implications of the Court's ruling. The Brown lawyers had apparently accomplished what politicians, scholars, and others could not-an unparalleled victory that would create a nation of equal justice under the law. The Court's decision seemed to call for a new era in which black children and white children would have equal opportunities to achieve the proverbial American Dream. It did not come too soon for the families whose children were victims of segregation.

The Brown case actually consisted of five different cases.5 In Briggs v. Elliott, 30 black parents from Clarendon County, South Carolina, sued the school district to improve the educational conditions for their children. They began organizing in 1947 with the help of local black ministers and the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP. The parents complained about the poor quality of the buildings, the lack of adequate transportation, and inadequate teacher salaries, among other things. The defendant in the case, Roderick W. Elliott, a sawmill owner and chairman of the board of trustees of School District No. 22, made no effort to supply black students with adequate educational facilities.6 After the lawsuit was filed, Harry Briggs and his wife, the named plaintiffs, were both fired from their jobs, and other blacks who participated in the lawsuit suffered threats and damage to their property from angry South Carolina citizens. Annie Gibson, another plaintiff, lost her job as a maid at a local motel, and her husband was forced from inherited land his family had sharecropped for decades.7 One of the Brown lawyers, Jack Greenberg, has described the problem in South Carolina in blunt terms: "Soon many of Clarendon County's black leadership, their families, and other [black citizens generally] were fired from jobs, denied credit, forced to pay longstanding debts, refused renewal of leases on farmland, had trouble getting their cotton ginned, were sued for slander, threatened by the Klan, and one black person was even beaten to death."8

Lawyers representing the families in the Briggs case employed Professor Kenneth B. Clark and his wife, Mamie Clark, whose now famous study placed identical dolls differing only in skin color in front of black children. The children preferred the white doll to the black doll, picking the black doll as looking "bad"; more than half identified themselves with the "bad" doll.

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