“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 But all underpinning of government support has been withdrawn from almost every category of segregation or discrimination by race.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.”
Years before she became a Nation columnist, Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams wrote an essay for that issue about meeting and talking to the surviving members of the family of the late Oliver Brown, who sued on behalf of his daughter, Linda.
Have you been disappointed by the years since 1954? I asked Mrs. Leola Brown Montgomery [Oliver’s widow]. Of course, she said. And then added, “But I don’t think that anybody anticipated the country’s response. The attorneys, the parents, we didn’t really understand the insidious nature of discrimination and to what lengths people would go to not share educational resources: leaving neighborhoods en masse because African-American children could now go to the school in your neighborhood. Not offering the same kinds of programs, or offering a lesser educational program in the same school—I don’t think anybody anticipated what we’ve ended up with…But we’re currently still in the midst of the country’s response, in my opinion.”
Brown was a case, Williams wrote, “that shaped my life’s possibilities, a case that, like a stone monument, stands for just about all the racial struggles with which this country still grapples.”
Perhaps the legacy of Brown is as much tied up with this sense of national imagination as with the pure fact of its legal victory; it sparkled in our heads, it fired our vision of what was possible. Legally it set in motion battles over inclusion, participation and reallocation of resources that are very far from resolved. But in a larger sense it committed us to a conversation about race in which all of us must join—particularly in view of a new rising Global Right.
The fact that this conversation has fallen on hard times is no reason to abandon what has been accomplished. The word games by which the civil rights movement has been stymied—in which “inner city” and “underclass” and “suspect profile” are racial code words, in which “integration” means “assimilation as white,” in which black culture means “tribalism,” in which affirmative active has been made out to be the exact equivalent of quota systems that discrimination against Jews—these are all dimensions of the enormous snarl this nation has been unraveling, in waves of euphoria and despairs, since the Emancipation Proclamation…
We remain charged with the task of getting beyond the stage of halting encounters filled with the superficial temptations of those “my maid says blacks are happy” or “whites are devils” moments. If we could press on to an accounting of the devastating legacy of slavery that lives on as a social crisis that needs generations more of us working to repair—if we could just get to the enormity of that unhappy acknowledgment, then that alone might be the paradoxical source of a genuinely revivifying, rather than a false, optimism.
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On fiftieth anniversary of Brown, in 2004, The Nation published essays by Michael Klarman, Claude M. Steele, and David Garrow, among others, as well as a forum, “Beyond Black, White and Brown,” edited by Eric Foner and Randall Kennedy, reflecting on the legacy of the decision and “the prospects for future change.” Much of what the contributors wrote remains relevant and true today—perhaps only more so.
Pedro Noguera and Robert Cohen: The de facto segregation of so many of our nation’s schools I no longer an issue that generates conflict and controversy. Like the growing prison population and homelessness, racial segregation is accepted as a permanent feature of life in America. Across the country, schools are segregated in terms of race and class, and as was true before Brown, the vast majority of poor children are relegated to an inferior education.
Frank H. Wu: Supporters of affirmative action invoke the spirit of Brown; opponents of the programs complain that there is no comparison to be made. Yet if Brown is to stand for something, ought it not at least to stand for the proposition that, if we believe we must have institutions that are inclusive, we also should take action to insure that they are so?
Asa Hilliard III: In the absence of a real understanding of the structure of domination, some of the worst elements of segregation have returned, in new guises. Tracking is less visible, but it persists. Today’s scripted, standardized, cookie-cutter, minimum-competency managed instruction, sometimes by private contractors, with severely reduced parent and community involvement, is offered mainly in low-income minority cultural group schools. Affluent public or private schools rarely if ever use the scripted, non-intellectual robotic programs. This is the new segregation.
Jacquelyn D. Hall: We now face a situation in which the federal courts are preventing local communities from pursuing race-conscious policies, while segregated housing remains deeply entrenched. The result will be two school systems: one filled with nonwhite children from low-income families and one with middle-class children, most of whom are white, along with our most qualified teachers.
We cannot address this crisis by commemorating the Brown decision in the register either of triumph or declension. Instead, we must grapple with the long civil rights movement as an unfinished revolution whose gains are once again being partially reversed. The culprit now, as in the past, is not just overt racism but public policies that are ostensibly colorblind, yet deliberately shape the landscape of race. We need stories that dramatize the hidden reality, stories that have no satisfying upward or downward arc, stories that call us to a struggle whose end is still not in sight.
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