Prior to the landmark Supreme Court rulings in Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe, the US government and the states were permitted to segregate students racially in primary and secondary public schools. The official rationale for this arrangement was that students–black as well as white–would all fare better in their own, racially distinct schools. Schooling would be separate…but equal, and thus fair. The “separate but equal” formula was coined in Massachusetts in 1850 but elevated to national influence in 1896 when, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute that required racial segregation on trains.
Dissenting in Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan stated forthrightly what everyone actually knew: that racial segregation arose not from any mutual, reciprocal, respectful desire for social distance and group autonomy but rather as an expression of white supremacist subordination of people of color. Noting that segregation proceeds “on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded” that they cannot be allowed to share public space with whites, Harlan predicted that segregation would “stimulate aggressions…upon the admitted rights of colored citizens,” “arouse race hate” and “perpetuate a feeling of distrust between [the] races.”
The half-century after Plessy confirmed Harlan’s dire prophecies. White supremacists bent on undoing the gains achieved during the Reconstruction Era disenfranchised blacks, severely limited their economic and educational opportunities, terrorized them through mob violence and systematically stigmatized them by extending segregationist laws and customs to practically every sphere of social life, from hospitals to prisons, beaches, restaurants, bathrooms and schools. In some courtrooms, witnesses of different races were required to take oaths on separate Bibles.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown invalidated state laws requiring or permitting racial segregation in public primary and secondary schools. Such laws, the Court concluded, violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Simultaneously, in Bolling the Court held that the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibited the federal government from racially segregating students in the District of Columbia. “In the field of public education,” the Court declared, “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
These decisions marked a major step forward in the struggle for racial justice–one that surely warrants commemorating on its fiftieth anniversary. The rulings reflected and encouraged developments that would soon spark that burst of humane, bold and heroic action we now know as the civil rights movement. Brown and Bolling stemmed from an extraordinary campaign of social reform litigation mainly led by black attorneys who had themselves suffered cruel deprivations imposed by segregation. These decisions demonstrated that at least some sectors of the white establishment were willing to begin cautiously to challenge open, unembarrassed, official discriminations against blacks and other peoples of color.
Although Brown and Bolling are often lauded as “eloquent” opinions, they were in fact remarkably modest in their rhetoric, their scope and their remedial approach. Seeking to create a unanimous decision in the face of ambivalence and resistance from some of his colleagues, Chief Justice Earl Warren intentionally penned opaque and non-accusatory opinions keenly attentive to the sensibilities of segregationists. As a result, the language of the opinions had “all of the moral grandeur of a bill of lading,” as the historian Richard Hofstadter once said of another enormously consequential declaration, the Emancipation Proclamation. One looks in vain in Brown and Bolling for the candid and vivid articulation of segregation’s purpose that one finds in Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy. One looks in vain for a reckoning with segregation which explains that it was what Professor Charles Black termed a “child eating lie,” one of many ways in which white supremacists armed with state power kept blacks in “their place.” The sobering fact is that in 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States could not yet tell the truth about segregation.