Why Brown Still Matters
None of these new books offer a comprehensive history of Brown itself. For that, one must turn to Richard Kluger's Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, first published in 1976, or to Mark Tushnet's very different but valuable Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961, published in 1994. Kluger's exhaustively documented chronicle remains the richest book yet written about Brown and one of the finest works of history ever to appear. The Pulitzer Prize board's failure to honor it is, in retrospect, a glaring embarrassment (Kluger did receive a 1997 Pulitzer for Ashes to Ashes, a magisterial history of the public health battle over cigarettes). Publication of a new edition of Simple Justice this spring offers a renewed opportunity to absorb one of the essential stories of American history.
Kluger's beautifully written volume begins with a memorable account of Brown's origins in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Brown, the singular name for the Supreme Court ruling, actually encompassed four initially separate cases--from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Kansas, the last of which furnished the "Brown" moniker. A fifth case, from the District of Columbia, Bolling v. Sharpe, was simultaneously decided in an individual opinion.
Simple Justice moves back and forth among the grassroots origins and lower-court litigation of all five cases. The South Carolina lawsuit is a riveting story because of the white repression and retaliation the African-American plaintiffs suffered. Kluger's elegant narration supplies copious detail about each case, but the most historically significant moment in the lower-court trials took place in Brown itself on June 25, 1951, during the testimony of Louisa Pinkham Holt, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas.
Addressing segregation's impact on black schoolchildren, Professor Holt testified that "the fact that it is enforced, that it is legal, I think, has more importance than the mere fact of segregation by itself does because this gives legal and official sanction to a policy which is inevitably interpreted both by white people and by Negroes as denoting the inferiority of the Negro." The resulting "sense of inferiority must always affect one's motivation for learning," she added, "since it affects the feeling one has of one's self as a person."
Five weeks later the court ruled against the black plaintiffs. But Judge Walter Huxman's opinion included a finding of fact that recapitulated Louisa Holt's testimony: "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn." As Brown moved forward to the Supreme Court, Huxman's echoing of Holt would tellingly reverberate.
Kluger's powerfully rendered accounts of such preliminary events convey a sense of high drama and uncertainty about the cases' eventual outcome. Making Civil Rights Law tells a different story. In Tushnet's view, only modest drama marked the Supreme Court's handling of Brown. When the High Court first heard the five cases in late 1952, the nine Justices already knew they were going to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous 1896 "separate but equal" ruling that had enshrined racial segregation in American law. Kluger, in contrast, portrays the NAACP attorneys as advancing a precarious challenge to Plessy whose final resolution was unforeseeable.
The crucial turning point, in Kluger's view, occurred on September 8, 1953, when Chief Justice Fred Vinson died suddenly of a heart attack. Vinson's demise, Justice Felix Frankfurter told his close friend Philip Elman, represented "the first indication I have ever had that there is a God." Earl Warren, the Republican governor of California, was named as Vinson's successor, an appointment Simple Justice heralds as the "Arrival of the Superchief."