Academic journal article Negro Educational Review

The Promise of Brown: Desegregation, Affirmative Action and the Struggle for Racial Equality

Academic journal article Negro Educational Review

The Promise of Brown: Desegregation, Affirmative Action and the Struggle for Racial Equality

Article excerpt

It was a brilliantly sunny, warm, early Friday afternoon in mid- September, the kind of memorable moment one yearns for in the bleakness of a New York City winter. Classes at Columbia University had just started, and hundreds of students were clustered along the steps and sidewalks, sunbathing and leisurely enjoying their noisy conversations. I hurriedly navigated my way through these human obstacle courses, embarrassed at being uncharacteristically late for my lunch appointment. Finally I could peer through the throng, seeing at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 116 Street, Columbia's Law School. Crossing against the light, I searched frantically for my guest. Cool as a cucumber, eighty-six year old Federal Judge Robert Carter was already there, patiently waiting for me to arrive. "Not to worry," Judge Carter smiled warmly, shaking my hand firmly. "It's a lovely day."

It's not often that a historian has a lunch date with African-American history. But lunch with Robert Carter, the original attorney of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, was exactly that.

Carter is remarkably youthful in appearance, still physically trim, dapper in dress, and his mental dexterity is as extraordinarily sharp as it was in legendary court battles a half century ago. Yet for one who has accomplished so much in a celebrated career of public service and social justice advocacy, Carter's manner is remarkably modest. His deep interest in African-American history and especially the experiences of struggle by blacks during Reconstruction, he explained over lunch, had helped to motivate him toward pursuing a law degree at Howard University. It was at Howard on November 8, 1938, while as a student, that Carter witnessed the incomparable civil rights attorney, Charles Hamilton Houston, rehearse the arguments he would successfully employ before the Supreme Court the next day, in what would be called the Gaines case. Hamilton's victory in Gaines over the all-white law school of the University of Missouri would pave the road toward the ultimate triumph over all segregated education many years later.

After military service during World War II, Carter joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), and quickly rose as second-in-command to the LDF's charismatic and capable leader, attorney Thurgood Marshall. Judge Carter talked fondly about his early experiences on the LDF staff back in the 1940s and 1950s. I reminded him that for a time the offices of Thurgood Marshall and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois were adjacent to each other, much to Du Bois's displeasure. Carter laughed aloud, recalling Marshall's habit of caucusing with his talented legal assistants at the end of a hard workday in boisterous, smoke-filled bull sessions around his office at late hours. The constant noise, and not infrequent earthy language, Carter carefully explained, irritated the proper scholar. Carter's small office was right down the hall on the same floor, so he was an intimate witness to the sometimes tense relationship between these two icons of black history.

Today, Robert Carter is best known as one of the principal attorneys who won famous Brown v. Board of Education case, which along with four other cases culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing of legal racial segregation in public schools. But the political story behind this remarkable civil rights achievement is too little appreciated.

In 1896, in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court had declared that racially segregated schools were constitutional, provided that all-black schools were "separate but equal" to white schools. In practical terms, however, the separate-but-equal standard created and perpetuated gross inequalities in the educational access of African Americans, especially in the Jim Crow South. The NAACP's attorneys, first led by Houston, and subsequently by Marshall, launched a series of successful legal challenges against unequal access in higher education over a quarter century. …

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