Why Brown Still Matters
Over the past decade it has become fashionable in some academic circles to assert that Brown v. Board of Education was a decision of little moment, that the Southern black freedom struggle of the 1954-68 era would have developed in much the way that it did irrespective of whether Brown or any similar ruling was ever handed down by the Supreme Court. Michael Klarman, a law professor at the University of Virginia, first propounded that argument in 1994, and this year he elaborates at some length a slightly muted restatement of it in From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality.
Klarman is not alone in asserting that Brown mobilized white segregationists to oppose African-American efforts for equality with radically increased vigor. But many recountings of mid-1950s history wrongly see white "massive resistance" as a direct response to Brown. Instead, as the best civil rights histories richly detail--see, for example, J. Mills Thornton's Dividing Lines--Brown inspired African-American activists across the South to redouble their efforts. Only as black Southerners petitioned for school integration, boycotted segregated municipal buses and attempted to desegregate all-white public universities did hard-core segregationists rise up in hysterical fury.
Academic efforts to minimize Brown's importance to the Southern black freedom struggle are not new--Gerald Rosenberg's 1991 book The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? is a case in point--but such historical arguments increasingly go hand in hand with political claims that progressive social-change movements should not look to constitutional lawsuits like Brown (or Roe v. Wade) to advance their agendas. For many Americans, Brown represents the social truth that courts can right fundamental wrongs just as much as it represents a landmark moment in the struggle for racial justice. Even as recently as 1987, when Judge Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court was overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate, criticisms and dismissals of the Warren Court's legacy of constitutional change were voiced only by conservative Republicans, and The New Republic, not progressives.