Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

W.E.B. Du Bois on Brown V. Board of Education

Academic journal article Ethnic Studies Review

W.E.B. Du Bois on Brown V. Board of Education

Article excerpt

The 1960s have been described as the "civil rights decade" in American history. Few scholar-activists have been identified as strongly with the legal, social, economic, and political changes culminating in the 1960s as has African American historian, sociologist, psychologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Inexplicably, in 2003, the 100-year anniversary of Du Bois' classic, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), came and went with little fanfare within or outside of academia. However, in 2004, the 50-year anniversary of the initial U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) presents an opportunity for ethnic studies in general, and Black studies in particular, to acknowledge the intellectual and political contributions of Du Bois to the civil rights movement in the United States. In the post-Civil Rights Era, some authors have suggested that Du Bois opposed the initial Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling. In contrast, I observe in the present paper that Du Bois (1957) opposed the U. S. Supreme Court's subsequent (1955) ruling that invoked the much-criticized term "with all deliberate speed," rather than the initial (1954) ruling that rendered the "separate but equal" doctrine unconstitutional. Moreover, I contend that Du Bois' own values and attitudes were fully consistent with his position on the (1954, 1955) decisions.

The year 2004 marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Around the time that Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the U. S. Supreme Court, a liberal white psychologist named G. W. Allport argued in The Nature of Prejudice (1954/1979) that federal laws should be changed to ensure social equality for all persons, regardless of individuals' so-called racial group membership. However, fifty years before The Nature of Prejudice was published, a progressive Black sociologist named W. E. B. Du Bois similarly argued in The Souls of Black Folk (1903/1969) that federal laws should be changed to ensure social equality for all persons, regardless of an individual's race.

In the present paper, I shall consider W. E. B. Du Bois' perspective on Brown v. Board of Education. Specifically, I shall attempt to debunk the notion (e.g., Patterson, 2001; Scott, 1997) that Du Bois took issue with the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As his (1986) own words reveal, Du Bois faulted the U. S. Supreme Court for failing to specify when states must comply with Brown v. Board of Education -- not for deciding in favor of Brown.

From Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education: The Rise and Fall of "Separate but Equal"

In order to appreciate the historical context in which the U. S. Supreme Court delivered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, one must acknowledge the earlier U. S. Supreme Court decision that Brown overturned -- namely, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In Plessy v. Ferguson the U. S. Supreme Court declared that individual states could legally segregate the races, at least in public railway carriages (Hayes, 2000b). Throughout the United States individual states interpreted Plessy v. Ferguson as permitting state-sponsored segregation far beyond the realm of public transportation (Wright & Morrison, 2001). Especially relevant to the present paper is the legal justification that Plessy v. Ferguson gave individual states to segregate the races within the realm of public education (Hayes, 2000b).

At the time that the U. S. Supreme Court delivered its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), psychology was a fledgling science (see Harrell, 1999). By the time that the U. S. Supreme Court delivered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), psychology had matured sufficiently for the U. S. Supreme Court to use the results of psychological experiments as evidence that within the realm of public education, state-sponsored segregation was inherently harmful to the social-psychological development of members of stigmatized racial groups (Jones, 1997). …

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