Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement

By Peter B. Levy | Go to book overview

Chapter Two DESEGREGATING THE SCHOOLS

In 1954, in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Ever since Plessy v. Ferguson ( 1896), segregation had been legally part of American life. Now, because of the courts' decision, it was not. Yet, is it correct to claim that Brown unleashed the civil rights movement, as many studies do? And did the decision show that the federal government was on the civil rights movement's side? Or was Brown itself the product of a barely visible movement with deep roots in the African-American community, including NAACP lawyers who devised a strategy for attacking Jim Crow, social scientists who demonstrated the harm that segregation did to minorities, and school children, their parents, and communities, who as plaintiffs and support networks risked their well-being in order to topple the southern way of life? The following documents favor the latter perspective. Moreover, the selections suggest that as pivotal as the court's decision was, actual desegregation did not occur because the law changed. Rather, de facto desegregation depended on the emergence of a mass movement, which would demand that all Americans obey the law of the land (Fig. 2.1).

2.1 The first document in this chapter, an article by Charles Houston, Dean of the School of Law at Howard University and Special Counsel to the NAACP, which appeared in Crisis, the NAACP's magazine, displays the roots of the Brown case. Houston mapped out a complex plan for attacking segregation twenty years before the court made its decision. This included using Howard law school as a laboratory to test and improve legal arguments and developing a cadre of highly trained and dedicated attorneys, the most famous being Thur

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