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Brown v. Board of Education Revisited
James T. Patterson. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone And Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. xxx + 285 pp. Figures, maps, appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index. $27.50.
Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that prohibited legally segregated schools, has perhaps generated more commentary and invited more scholarly analysis than any other judicial decision of the twentieth century. Scores of books and articles have been written in an attempt to gauge the full impact that this landmark decree has had on American race relations in general and school desegregation in particular. With lucid prose and amazing clarity, James T. Patterson argues that while Brown has always had an incalculable symbolic value as a watershed event in the history of the civil rights movement, the decision at the time was steeped in controversy and remains so to this day. Some forty-seven years later, supporters and detractors alike are still debating which side actually won.
Patterson begins his well-crafted narrative by documenting black Americans' struggle to obtain a decent education. In its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the decision arose over the matter of segregated railroad cars, in time "separate but equal" became the guiding principle in every aspect of American life. Nowhere was this practice more devastating than in the area of public education.
Beginning in the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaigned against the glaring inequities that existed between black and white schools. Ably led by the tireless Charles Hamilton Houston, the NAACP documented the inequalities inherent in a dual educational system, providing indisputable proof that whites were much more interested in enforcing the "separate" than the "equal." Although the NAACP won some key legal victories during this period (which seemed, ever so slowly, to chip away at segregated education), the organization up to this time had challenged only the unequal facilities rather than the segregation per se. And while the Supreme Court seemed to display less and less [End Page 141] tolerance for school districts, or colleges and universities, that denied equal educational opportunites to their black citizens, none of the rulings so far had indicated that the Court was prepared to overturn Plessy. NAACP lawyers understood that to challenge Plessy and lose might well set back their cause for a generation or more, but after Houston's death in 1950, Thurgood Marshall, whom Houston had mentored at Howard University, made the decision to challenge segregation head-on.
Patterson astutely reminds his readers that until 1950 black parents and their allies most often demanded educational equality, not desegregation. Several prominent African Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston, had expressed reservations about integration, which almost always implied white racial superiority and black inferiority. The majority of blacks seemed willing to live with separate schools as long as they were truly equal. It was only when they became convinced that whites would never grant total equality that blacks began to call for the dismantling of Jim Crow education.
For many reasons, not the least of which was the fear of economic or physical reprisal, blacks were often reluctant to challenge the system. But every community had its heroes, such as the Reverend J.A. DeLaine and Harry Briggs in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and the Reverend L. Francis Griffin and the spunky sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns in Prince Edward County, Virginia, who were willing to take bold and courageous stands in the pursuit of simple justice. In South Carolina, the Reverend DeLaine, who initially had asked only for one bus to transport black children to school, assumed the leadership of the local movement. Eventually he would be joined by a few black parents, Harry Briggs among them, willing to serve as plaintiffs. In Virginia, Barbara Johns, with the support of...