The Legacy of the Brown Decision

May 17, 1994

On the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the nation might well ponder the paradox presented by the historic ruling aimed at ending racial segregation in the nation's public schools. As The Sun's Lyle Denniston noted in a Perspective article Sunday, Brown struck down the 58-year-old doctrine of "separate but equal" in education and heralded the end of America's version of apartheid. At the same time, however, its promise of a nation indivisible is not yet fulfilled.

Forty years after Brown declared school segregation inherently unequal and unconstitutional, the nation's schools have made not nearly enough progress toward the goal of desegregation. Most black students still attend majority black schools, and many white students never encounter a black face during their classroom careers. That today's de facto segregation is due largely to demographic and housing patterns rather than to the force of law is small comfort to those who believed equality under law would result in equality in fact.

With the hindsight of 40 years, there is even a tendency to dismiss or disparage Brown's impact on American society. Critics charge the decision actually demonstrated how ineffectual the courts were as agents of social change, since many Southern school systems successfully resisted obeying the ruling for years after it was issued. By contrast they point to the immediate, tangible results produced through the legislative process exemplified by the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Baltimore City was a notable exception to this rule, thanks largely to the early determination of an enlightened political community to comply fully with the order despite threats of violent disruption.)

Yet such criticisms overlook the profound oral revolution ushered in by the Brown decision. In unanimously declaring school segregation unconstitutional, the Supreme Court in effect sanctioned a 180-degree course change in American race relations. It was, as even one lukewarm supporter of the decision has written, "among the most humane moments in all our history."

By challenging the very foundation of white supremacy as it had evolved through 400 years of social custom and law, Brown laid the basis for all the later triumphs of the civil rights movement and the transformation of American society that followed. In doing so, the case took its place as the most momentous Supreme Court decision of the 20th century in the same way that Dred Scott was the crucial decision of the 19th century.

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