An Appraisal of Brown V. Board of Education, Topeka KS. (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

By Kinshasa, Kwando M. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

An Appraisal of Brown V. Board of Education, Topeka KS. (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott


Kinshasa, Kwando M., The Western Journal of Black Studies


On May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court arrived at a decision that had immediate repercussions on the lives of two groups of American citizens who from the early days of the republic were characterized, polarized and then segregated by their physical, cultural and religious differences. Historic experiences have continually characterized these groups into distinct racial and social entities; one free the other slave, one a master class the other a social pariah, one privileged the other deprived, one white the others black, brown, red or yellow. Both groups however learned to formulate specific presumptions about the value of law and justice in relationship to their assigned place in society. Though these assumptions dramatically hindered both political and social advances by ostensible minority groups, e.g., people of African descent, an amended version of the American Constitution eventually asserted; "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws ..." (National Constitutional Center, 2001, pp. 25-26). In spite of this implied intent, by 1896, the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of 'separate but equal' swept away the 14th Amendment's intended application to make primarily African Americans equal under the law.

In an oblique reference concerning the disenfranchised, the 19th century French writer and philosopher, Anatole France commented, "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread" (Kerr, 1975, [inside cover]). In sardonic fashion he undoubtedly was inquiring: if in a dramatic downturn of an economy, a rich and poor man found themselves sleeping under a bridge at night, would they be equal?

One response is; of course not! With all else held constant, social networks and experiences are not necessarily permanently hampered by the loss of wealth or living conditions. And while social variations and mores can have an impact on ones ability to function in society (be they rich, poor, or a celebrity), their ethnic or racial classification will alleviate them of any ambiguity about social status, net worth or in the case of most African Americans, their relationship to political power.

In this regard, criminologist Robert Merton accurately asserted that embedded political contradictions within the American social system undoubtedly place an immense strain upon society, particularly when it comes to racial matters. He contended that in this case regardless of legislative and judicial manipulations, African Americans are the quintessential group that has historically found themselves caught between society's valued cultural goals and the legitimate means to reach those ends (Akers, 2003, pp. 139-188). Despite the fact that 19th century legislative adjustments to the U.S. Constitution such as the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteen amendments implied that the status of African Americans could be improved through legislative acts, racist reactions consummated by the Supreme Court's racial doctrine of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), curtailed this prospect.

Fifty eight years later when the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Ks. (1954), signaled that Plessy "has no place in the field of public education," and that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," white Americans, north and south quickly discerned that equal or full opportunity for a once pariah race would devastate their own social, economic and cultural possibilities (Brown v. Board of Education, 1952). Predictably, existing political and social barriers to racial parity were quickly and firmly reinforced segregationist principles were implemented both in spirit [de facto] and by law [de jure]. …

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