From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown V. Board of Education and American Democracy

By Daugherity, Brian | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown V. Board of Education and American Democracy


Daugherity, Brian, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


From the Grassroots to the Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education and American Democracy * Peter F. Lau, ed. * Durham: Duke University Press, 2004 * x, 406 pp. * $25.95

The fiftieth anniversary last year of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, inspired a wealth of publications related to that historic United States Supreme Court decision. This collection of essays-including pieces by a number of prominent scholars of civil rights and school desegregation-will please readers searching for new analyses of Brown, its effect, and its legacies.

Primarily geared toward an academic audience, the collection deals with many of the debates currently shaping civil rights and school desegregation scholarship. In his introduction, Lau explains that he hopes this collection will bridge the gap between decades-old scholarship that emphasizes a "top-down" approach to civil rights and more recent community studies that feature "bottom-up" analyses. Lau's focus on an "interactive" understanding of the era (p. x) highlights the intersection of, and interplay between, efforts of national civil rights leaders and organizations and the civil rights foot soldiers from thousands of communities around the nation.

Lau also seeks to reestablish the importance of Brown in this collection. In the last decade, a number of scholars have shown that southern opposition to Brown minimized the impact, and importance, of the decision in the 1950s and 1960s. These scholars rightly note that Brown had little effect on desegregating the nation's schools even into the later 1960s, suggesting that the legacies of Brown are at best mixed. This collection argues, however, that Brown's legacies are only beginning to be understood, and that by looking outside the traditional black-white, southern, and legal-political paradigms of civil rights studies, we can better understand the importance of the decision.

Organized into four sections, the collection includes sixteen essays dealing with a wide range of themes, locations, and arguments related to Brown. Local studies include chapters on Prince Edward County, Va., Clarendon County, S.C., Durham, N.C., New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis, and New York. A regional chapter examines the efforts of different ethnicities to fight segregation and discrimination in the American West, and state-level analyses examine Virginia's civil rights attorneys and the struggle for quality education in North Carolina between Reconstruction and Brown. Additional essays examine the decision-making process of the Supreme Court on the eve of Brown; the effects of postwar liberalism on Judge J. …

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