Fifty years ago, African-Americans and fellow progressives hailed Brown v. Board of Education as a conclusive turning point in the struggle for racial equality. NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall predicted the end of all school segregation within five years, and the NAACP adopted the slogan “free by ’63.” White supremacists unsurprisingly denounced the decision, but prominent academics and jurists also criticized Brown for rejecting history, endorsing social psychology and espousing judicial supremacy.
Fifty years after Brown, the battle lines are reversed. Prominent African-American figures now criticize Brown as a “failure,” and liberal legal scholars claim the ruling contributed little or nothing to the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s. Conservative commentators and judges, for their part, now avidly praise Brown, celebrating it as a landmark victory that paved the way to a “colorblind” America.
This paradoxical turnabout is not a singular phenomenon. Consider, for example, how each January the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday now elicits a largely ho-hum response from proponents of racial justice. In contrast, right-wing politicians like President George W. Bush consistently use the anniversary for wreath-laying photo-ops designed to advertise their anti-racist credentials.
Should conservatives be blamed for trying to appropriate the Brown decision and the King holiday as deceptive window-dressing for their own present-day political goals? Or should liberals instead ask whether onetime supporters of Brown and of King have so loosened their own embrace of two of the freedom struggle’s greatest legacies as to make them easily available for uncontested capture by their opponents?
Failure to extol the democratic socialist King, who harshly decried America’s military adventurism abroad, leaves him vulnerable to the sort of selective quotation (“not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”) that allows conservatives to kidnap his birthday. Fortunately with King, there are excellent new books, such as Drew Hansen’s The Dream and Stewart Burns’s To the Mountaintop, as well as earlier biographies, that utterly rebut this historical hijacking.
Brown has not been as fortunate. Most of the long shelfload of books published on the occasion of the decision’s fiftieth anniversary focus on the narrowest aspect of Brown‘s legacy–school desegregation–and overlook the broader and more far-reaching way in which Brown revolutionized the role of courts in American life. Some of these books offer fashionable dismissals of Brown, which, like the belittling of King by radicals, can have tangibly harmful consequences in the wider political culture. For if Brown was a “failure,” then aggressive judicial protection of civil rights and liberties in other contexts is likewise more open to disparagement and attack.