Patterson traces the Brown ruling

January 28, 2001|By Stephen Henderson | By Stephen Henderson,Sun Staff

"Brown v. Board of Education, A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy," by James T. Patterson. Oxford University Press. 288 pages. $27.50.

America has come almost full circle since the U.S. Supreme Court pulled the legal rug out from under segregated public schools in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

We've gotten through school integration's rocky beginnings -- the violent white resistance to it and the heady 1960s civil rights movement, the busing debacles of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the battle over affirmative action. Now, it seems we're right back where we started: with white and black children largely attending separate and unequal educational facilities. It's not the law anymore, but it remains the reality.

That doubling back gives rise to some obvious questions: Did the Court do the right thing in Brown? Could it have gone further? Should it have gotten involved at all?

In his new book "Brown v. Board of Education," Brown University history professor James T. Patterson doesn't offer tidy answers that might allow us all to sleep better at night. But through a wonderfully detailed, narrative-style retelling of the events that both led to Brown and followed it, Patterson provides a fresh perspective on the ideals of integration and equality that may help us find answers for ourselves.

Patterson's book is the first in a series by Oxford press that will provide brief retellings of crucial events in American history. If his work is any indication of what's to come, it's a series not to be missed by anyone interested in this country's history, and what it might tell us about the United States' future.

Patterson begins his tale pre-Brown, in the 1930s, with a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall working with others to bring legal challenges to the separate-but-equal doctrine that had been adopted by the court in Plessy vs. Ferguson. It moves forward through the trial work of the landmark case, its two hearings before the Supreme Court, its embattled implementation and the many civil rights-related events that follow in its footsteps.

Throughout, he sucks readers into his prose with sharply drawn profiles of the principals in the school desegregation saga.

He describes Marshall as a "gifted raconteur" and makes much of the "common touch" he used to endear people to him. He skillfully dissects the allegiances and divisions on the Supreme Court (at one point explaining how Sherman Minton and Harold Burton didn't get along because Minton chewed tobacco and spattered Burton when he aimed at his spittoon). And he tells with great empathy the stories of the brave souls who stepped forward to challenge segregation -- people like Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old black girl who wouldn't eat lunch at the New Orleans school she integrated because a white woman had told her on the first day: "We're going to poison you until you choke to death!"

Early in the book, Patterson makes much of the fact that blacks before the Brown ruling weren't really pushing for integration. They just wanted equality in separate facilities, which is what Plessy was supposed to have ensured.

He reintroduces this theme in the last chapter (on Brown's lessons and legacies), this time in the context of Brown's aftermath. Blacks are now requestioning the idea of integration as a holy grail, he points out, because Brown's promise was never fulfilled.

If anything, that's the book's central theme. What African-Americans want is equality, and the push for school integration may have been a distracting influence upon their quest to attain that goal.

Courts can mandate equality; but integration is a societal goal (perhaps no less desirable) that relies on the good faith of individuals, which can hardly be forced.

Patterson disappoints in that he does not offer us an answer to this question: What next? But that's hardly fair criticism. His work wonderfully and compellingly gives anyone interested in finding the answer a fine place to start.

Stephen Henderson, associate editor of The Sun's editorial page, has been a reporter and editorial writer for eight years at the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune and the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Ledger.

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