From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality

From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality

From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality

From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality

Synopsis

Do Supreme Court decisions matter? In 1896 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that railroad segregation laws were permissible under the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1954 the Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education held that the same constitutional provision invalidated statutes segregating public schools How great an impact did judicial rulings such as Plessy and Brown have? How much did such Court decisions influence the larger world of race relations? In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, Michael J. Klarman examines the social and political impact of the Supreme Court's decisions involving race relations from Plessy, the Progressive Era, and the Interwar Period to World Wars I and II, Brown and the Civil Rights Movement. He explores the wide variety of consequences that Brown may have had--raising the salience of race issues, educating opinion, mobilizing supporters, energizing opponents of racial change. He concludes that Brown was ultimately more important for mobilizing southern white opposition to racial change than for encouraging direct-action protest. The decision created concrete occasions for violent confrontation--court ordered school desegregation and radicalized southern politics, leading to the election of politicians who calculated that violent suppression of civil rights demonstrations would win votes. It was such violence--vividly captured on television--that ultimately transformed northern opinion on race, leading to the enactment of landmark civil rights legislation in the mid 1960s. A fascinating investigation of the Supreme Court's rulings on race, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, spells out in exhaustive detail the political and social context against which the Supreme Court Justices operate and the consequences of those decisions on the civil rights movement and beyond.

Excerpt

I signed a contract to write this book in the spring of 1998, but in some sense I have been working on it since the first semester that I taught constitutional law at the University of Virginia School of Law—the spring of 1988. Every teacher of constitutional law must ultimately make peace with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which is widely deemed to be the most important Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century. Figuring out what one thinks about Brown has two dimensions. Why is the decision right? (Virtually everyone today agrees that it is right, though this was not so in 1954, when it was decided.) How important was the ruling in the history of American race relations?

My first stab at answering the normative question—why Brown is right—was a 1991 law review article that considered whether Brown could be defended on the ground that the southern political system was antidemocratic: In the 1950s, southern blacks were generally not permitted to vote, and state legislatures were badly malapportioned in favor of rural whites, who were the most committed to maintaining white supremacy. In subsequent scholarship, I turned to the question of impact—how much Brown mattered to race relations in the United States. This work situated Brown within a host of forces—political, social, economic, demographic, ideological, and international—that were pushing the United States toward greater racial equality in the middle of the twentieth century. I wondered whether these broad background forces might not have rendered Brown unneces-

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