“The Climax of an Era”—so declared The Nation’s headline marking the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down sixty years ago this Saturday. For the few progressives left in those dark times, the Warren Court’s unanimous decision declaring “separate but equal” public facilities unconstitutional was “a fine antidote to the blight of McCarthyism and kindred fevers,” observed Carey McWilliams, soon to become The Nation’s editor.
More promising than the Court’s decision itself, McWilliams continued, was the widespread approval it garnered in a nation whose army had only been desegregated less than six years earlier. That overwhelming response, he argued, should be taken as support for liberalizing federal policy further: “For it demonstrates once again the measure of unity and confidence and pride that can be aroused whenever unqualified expression is given to the individual and social values to be found in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Fortunately we continue to redeem, often after costly delays and protestations, the promises to which we are committed by history and tradition and, we can now add, by current conviction.”
Sadly, as we know, those delays and protestations continued. In many ways they became even costlier as the civil rights movement zeroed in on the more institutionalized—and, therefore, less easily subverted—barriers to equality that had been erected in the course of hundreds of years of slavery and racial oppression. For The Nation, anniversaries of the Brown v. Board of Education decision have always served as opportunities to reflect on how much has been promised, how much delivered, how much still owed.
In 1974, the American historian John Caughey called Brown “the noblest and most influential judicial decision of the century.”
Brown drove Jim Crow from the drinking fountain, the waiting room, the lunch counter, the rest room, the elevator, the bus, the motel, the voting booth, the employment office, the salesroom, the public playground and the graveyard. That is not to say that racism has been extirpated. But all underpinning of government support has been withdrawn from almost every category of segregation or discrimination by race.
Caughey also noted the sad irony that, after much resistance, the South ultimately consented to school desegregation, while supposedly more enlightened parts of the country continued to resist:
Today, the prime concentrations of black children assigned to segregated schools are to be found in the Northern and Western cities. It is, furthermore, in these communities and on the school issue that the one great exception to the “Browning” of America is to be found. Here the order of the Supreme Court is evaded and resisted, usually under such slogans as local control or opposition to bussing, but with the anomaly that the one governmental body in town that still imposes and enforces segregation is the school system.
In 1994, The Nation headlined its fortieth-anniversary issue on Brown “Broken Promise,” arguing in an editorial that “to attribute today’s segregation and inequality to the broad economic trends that over decades have devastated and isolated the nation’s cities” was “to ignore the dimensions of politics and racism.”