The Brown Decision and Its Discontents
by Waldo E. Martin, Jr.

Waldo E. Martin, Jr.

Today the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education decision mandating the end of Jim Crow schools and by implication the end of Jim Crow America is represented as a mixed triumph, if a triumph at all. Similarly, Brown is increasingly characterized of late as a legal decision with a mixed legacy at best, a legacy of failure at worst. The evidence for this ambivalence is clear and compelling. All around us, in far too many ways, in spite of Brown and comparable antiracist successes, we can see Jim Crow America resurrected under different guises: some even postmodern and allegedly liberal, allegedly progressive. In fact, as the old saying goes, the more things have changed, in crucial ways the more they have remained the same. Yet when viewed within the context of its post-World War II historical moment, the origins, consequences, and meanings, the hope and promise of Brown, can be glimpsed anew.

The fact that fifty years after the original ruling, American schools are as racially segregated and as unequal as they were in 1954 is sobering. Far too many African-American and Latino students today attend lousy schools where they are essentially being warehoused, disrespected, mis- and undereducated. Our society has rendered these children disposable, and as a result their future prospects are dim. The ubiquitous and enduring calls for education reform to address these kinds of serious educational challenges typically gloss over the depth and severity of the problem. As a society, we consistently fail to grapple with the structural inequalities of class privilege and white racial privilege that brace not just the public schools but also the society and culture of which those schools are but a consequence.

The notion of finally fulfilling the grand and historic public school mission of providing a quality education for all American children, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or station, was fundamental to the vision animating Brown. Realizing that optimistic mission meant revitalizing the central educational mission of these schools. This revitalized commitment to equal educational opportunity meant making available at every level all the necessary energies and resources to help realize such a lofty aim. First-rate public schools demanded nothing less than first-rate public support all around.

Providing the full and untrammeled opportunity for equal education for all children, envisioned by Brown, is thus a profound and inspiring, not to mention exceedingly lofty and difficult, goal. Commitment to this vision has also meant seriously reviving the civic mission of public schools as social institutions committed to weaving together into a singular people the nation's diverse racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood strands. In other words, this aspect of Brown's broad educational vision of equal educational opportunity has meant a related yet vital commitment to a kind of social engineering: knitting America's diverse peoples firmly together so that they might better understand one another and work together. The ultimate goal here has been to move us as a nation toward a collective understanding of the American Dream of social betterment, not just an individualistic vision of that dream.

Unfortunately, as previously noted, America's public schools have by and large continued to reflect the inequalities that stratify the larger society. The democratic and egalitarian goals of America's public schools remain to a large extent underrealized, when not unrealized. Whether viewed from an educational, civic, and social standpoint or some combined standpoint, the results have too often been disappointing, if not dispiriting. Rather than engines of upward mobility, these schools have too often become cogs in the wheels of an increasingly global economy with the best jobs either reserved for a highly educated elite or shipped abroad. As a result, vast and growing numbers of America's children are being educated to fit into an economy of low-wage, dead-end service jobs, and social lives of diminished hope and shuttered aspiration.

Change is imperative. Yet the kind of legal and constitutional change epitomized by Brown can neither substitute for nor camouflage the crying need for substantive systemic change. The disgraceful American records on integration more generally, as well as school integration more specifically, are a case in point. Courts can rule on the legality and constitutionality of positions, and can even mandate steps to be taken to implement those rulings. But absent the national will and the national leadership to realize those rulings, hoped-for progress will languish. Add to the mix active white opposition and justifiable black skepticism, and you have several of the crucial ingredients for the undistinguished history of school integration since the Brown decision.

Still, the tendency to equate the Brown decision with the whole of the history of integration, notably school integration, is flawed and misleading. In and of itself, that decision is neither responsible for the too-few subsequent moments of integration's success nor the too-many subsequent moments of integration's failure. That revealing and often sordid history must be read against the kaleidoscopic historical backdrop of America's ongoing racial quagmire. In effect, the hope and promise of Brown has foundered on the shoals of American's foundering commitment to equality and justice, not to mention freedom. In other words, the failure of integration is America's failure, not the failure of Brown. Put another way, to the extent that it has been a failure, the decision has failed society because society has failed the decision.

The hope and promise of Brown, in this view, has to date been subverted and squandered by a leadership and a citizenry whose responsibility it has been to make integration happen. The failure, therefore, is neither with the decision's powerful egalitarian and democratic vision nor the committed and visionary lawyers who bequeathed it to us. Rather, the failure rests with the decision makers and the rest of us. The problem rests with those who were entrusted with the power to make integration happen but have instead lacked commitment to, even opposed, the vision of integration, not to mention having working against it and thus undermined its realization.

The foregoing argument that we have failed Brown, that Brown has not failed us, reflects the assumption of a guiding principle that making integration work has been a vital national goal. This argument thus assumes the absolute centrality of and a firm commitment to bringing about integration at every level. This evolving integrationism would be a multitiered endeavor proceeding in tandem on various related levels simultaneously. These levels would include a historical process proceeding politically, economically, socially, and culturally, as well as racially, ethnically, religiously, and classwise. In fact, though, the post-Brown history of integration exposes the assumption of a national commitment to integration to be idealistic, perhaps overstated, and maybe even illusory, if not downright delusory.

It is highly debatable that we as a nation have ever actually agreed upon first principles in the matter of integration. The concept emerged in the second half of the twentieth century as part of the postwar American national ethos critically spurred on by a variety of movements for social change, most importantly the Modern Civil Rights Movement. All of this transpired, however, without the kind of coherent national discussion that might have led to a national consensus regarding a set of guiding first principles. What is integration? Do we as a nation really want integration? If we truly do, how do we go about making it a reality? Given the lack of clarity on these foundational issues, it is no wonder that in terms of theory and practice, we have often drifted, been sidetracked, and stumbled badly. This very lack of clarity has only aided and abetted the maintenance of an unequal and unfair status quo, leading to a history of integration replete with ambiguity, ambivalence, half-baked schemes, missed opportunities, rank opportunism, and outright opposition.

It is useful to see Brown as a peak in an ongoing Black Freedom Struggle dating back to the arrival of the first Africans on these shores in the seventeenth century. Needless to say, innumerable peaks and valleys have marked the path of the long-term struggle since then. For sure, because of the massive black grassroots insurgency of the Civil Rights (1945-1965) and Black Power (1966-1975) years, that continuing struggle has witnessed a more progressive turn of events generally. The same can be said of the last decades of the twentieth century, in many ways a Post-Civil Rights, Post-Black Power era. Unfortunately, the path of integration, especially school integration, belies on balance a positive assessment, in spite of a few modest gains. On this front, as on so many others, the struggle continues.

When framed as an indispensable episode in the emergence of the modern phase of the Civil Rights Movement, Brown is a truly peak moment. The series of cases that culminated in the Brown victory owed to a multitiered strategy launched in the 1930s by the brilliant and prescient Charles Houston, Dean of Howard University's Law School. First, Houston and his cohorts envisioned legal and constitutional struggle, or judicial activism, as part and parcel of the ongoing Black Freedom Struggle. Spearheaded by the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, this approach attracted an impressive array of black legal talent. This black judicial activism was seen as intimately related to and thus complementing other forms of black activism, such as collective protest. In practice as well as theory, the law-the veritable rule of law-had to be made to function as an effective weapon on behalf of the Black Freedom Struggle in close conjunction with the other components of that struggle. The more elite paths of struggle forged in the judicial arena were intimately interwoven with the more grassroots paths forged in the streets.

Second, Houston's strategy encompassed the training of a first-rate cadre of black lawyers to do the demanding yet necessary legal work. He clearly understood that the daunting challenge of dismantling Jim Crow demanded that blacks themselves rely principally upon themselves, not others, be they white allies or friends, radicals or progressives. As evidenced throughout the long and winding trajectory of the Black Freedom Struggle, here again the collective strategy of black self-help proved imperative. For Houston; his like-minded colleagues, including William Hastie; and exceptional students like Thurgood Marshall and Robert L. Carter; black civil rights lawyers needed to be committed to making the law work on behalf of the Black Freedom Struggle.

Third, what Houston and his cohorts artfully crafted was a way to marry civil rights litigation to the emerging mass black insurgency: to connect formally and strategically the legal struggle to the developing grassroots social movement. Throughout the thirties and forties, the overriding objective of the NAACP lawyers' strategy was a gradualist approach of destroying over time the separate but equal fiction of Jim Crow by making its practice financially impossible as well as unlawful. The master plan was to render Jim Crow unworkable by demanding that the separate world of Southern blacks be made truly equal in every respect to that of Southern whites. Equalization, as this strategy was called, yielded many triumphs throughout the thirties and forties, as various blatant manifestations of this racist discrimination, such as lower salaries for black teachers compared to white teachers, were ruled unlawful.

In part inspired by the militant black spirit of the World War II era, the NAACP lawyers shifted gears and developed a more aggressive strategy: a withering frontal assault on the citadel of Jim Crow itself. This uncompromising strategy was an all-out attack on the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine itself, a vicious doctrine that had rationalized the separate but equal lie bracing Jim Crow since the turn of the century. The key constitutional argument was that the separate and unequal reality of Jim Crow schools was a fundamental denial of black children's, indeed all blacks', Fourteenth Amendment-protected right to equal citizenship. The legal and constitutional triumph of Brown not only overturned the Plessy dictum, but it also maintained persuasively that separate schools harmed white as well as black children, all whites as well as well as all blacks, indeed all Americans. Integrated public schools were envisioned, therefore, as a necessary step in the direction of a more egalitarian, more democratic, and, in turn, integrated society.

The year 1955 witnessed the Supreme Court dodging the question of the appropriate remedy in the Brown case in its "with all deliberate speed" formulation. The states of the former Confederacy interpreted that ambiguous evasion as further reason to mount a Massive Resistance Campaign to school integration. Until the federal government intervened in the late sixties to begin to enforce Southern school integration, it languished. After a brief period of halting progress toward school integration, largely in the 1970s and mostly in the South, we have of late witnessed the resegregation of America's public schools and, as a result, seen growing evidence of increasingly race-based and class-based inequality and injustice.

The legacy of Brown has indeed been mixed at best, a failure at worst. In the end, however, that very legacy, whether seen as failed or mixed, illuminates and signifies an even larger question: What kind of society do we really want? Do we really want a truly egalitarian and democratic society? Until we as a nation can commit ourselves to a concerted national effort to a more egalitarian and a more democratic society, our schools will continue to replicate, even exacerbate, inequality and injustice.

Other essays on Thurgood Marshall:

Brown v. Board of Education by Leon Friedman
Remembering Thurgood Marshall by Randall L. Kennedy