The School Cases: The First Two Rounds
THE early 1950s could not have made civil right advocates particularly optimistic about the chances of making major strides toward equality. To be sure, there had been important changes. More Americans, aware of Hitler's racism, were concerned about the "American dilemma" so effectively portrayed by Gunnar Myrdall1 and others who were publicizing the problem. There had been a successful if partial integration experience among servicemen, and a number of racial barriers had dropped after World War II, particularly in the North. Minority groups were becoming increasingly politicized.2 But Congress continued to turn a deaf ear, and the soon-to-be inaugurated Eisenhower administration would be characterized by a president who never in eight years of office uttered a single word in support of desegregation. The courts, generally more accessible to minority groups than the legislatures, provided a somewhat different picture. However, the NAACP had achieved some partial success in the Supreme Court. This encouraged the organization to continue to use litigation as its primary weapon. As Justice Jackson recognized in commenting during the oral arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, "I suppose that realistically this case is here for the reason that action couldn't be obtained from Congress."
Civil rights attorneys had begun the task of assembling and marshaling arguments attacking the "separate but equal" doctrine on a variety of grounds. Seeing the signal in Sweatt to focus upon the constitutionality of "separate but equal," and further stimulated to act by constituency pressure,3 the NAACP turned its attention to segregation in the public schools. "Separate but equal" could--and should--have been overturned in its "logical" context--in cases involving segregated transportation facilities. But these cases were resolved by a cautious Court on narrow grounds abounding in legal technicalities of Interstate Commerce Commission regulations and procedures, making it frustrating for the