Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy

Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy

Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy

Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy


Many people were elated when Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in May 1954, the ruling that struck down state-sponsored racial segregation in America's public schools. Thurgood Marshall, chief attorney for the black families that launched the litigation, exclaimed later, "I was so happy, I was numb." The novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, "another battle of the Civil War has been won. The rest is up to us and I'm very glad. What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children!"
Here, in a concise, compelling narrative, Bancroft Prize-winning historian James T. Patterson takes readers through the dramatic case and its fifty-year aftermath. A wide range of characters animates the story, from the little-known African-Americans who dared to challenge Jim Crow with lawsuits (at great personal cost); to Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Justice himself; to Earl Warren, who shepherded a fractured Court to a unanimous decision. Others include segregationist politicians like Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas; Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon; and controversial Supreme Court justices such as William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas.
Most Americans still see Brown as a triumph--but was it? Patterson shrewdly explores the provocative questions that still swirl around the case. Could the Court--or President Eisenhower--have done more to ensure compliance with Brown? Did the decision touch off the modern civil rights movement? How useful are court-ordered busing and affirmative action against racial segregation? To what extent has racial mixing affected the academic achievement of black children? Where indeed do we go from here to realize the expectations of Marshall, Ellison, and others in 1954?


Shortly before the Supreme Court announced Brown v. Board of Ed ucation of Topeka on May 17, 1954, the historic decision that struck down state-sponsored racial segregation of America's public schools, Chief Justice Earl Warren decided to spend a few days visiting Civil War sites in Virginia. His black chauffeur drove him south out of Washington, D.C.

At the end of the first day Warren checked into a hotel where he had made advance reservations. He assumed that his chauffeur would locate lodgings of his own. The next morning, however, he realized that his chauffeur had spent the night in the car. Warren asked why.

“Well, Mr. Chief Justice,” the chauffeur replied, “I just couldn't find a place—couldn't find a place to…”

The Chief Justice had heard enough: it was obvious that there were no decent accommodations to be had for a black man in that racially segregated region. “I was embarrassed, I was ashamed,” he said later. He cut short the trip and returned immediately to Washington.

Warren recalled this experience as evidence of the formidable edifice of racial discrimination in the United States in 1954. He identified Brown, a unanimous ruling, as a huge stride in the direction of knocking it down. Many contemporaries agreed that the Court had courageously contested America's durable color line. Thurgood Marshall, chief attorney for the black families who launched the litigation, had fought against racist school practices for many years. When Warren delivered the decision, Marshall could not restrain his joy. “I was so happy,” he . . .

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