The legacy of 'Brown': 'It transformed the values of the country'

May 16, 2004

JACK GREENBERG was 27 years old when he helped argue the Brown cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. His memoir, Crusaders in the Courts, was published in a new edition this month.

Gilbert Holmes, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, is a graduate of the New York University School of Law.

They met this month at the invitation of The Sun to discuss the legacy of Brown.

Mr. Greenberg: "The cases that led up to Brown came out of a campaign that was led by Charles Houston. ... He considered should we file some cases to equalize the schools. He didn't have to file a case to establish the principle that they should be equal, because the principle was there. You had to file cases to really make them do it. And he said, `Well, we have enough money to file about seven cases, maybe not enough money to file 70 cases.' And he said, `Maybe we would win a lot of them, but then would be the problem of actually wringing the money out of the school districts. The court does not print money. You've got to get it from the legislature.' And he thought you would have a hard time doing that. Well, that was an absolutely valid perception. ...

"Even if you did get the funding, that is not what black kids need. To go to school in a segregated environment is, sometimes, maybe unavoidable - now in particular, because of residential segregation, it is widely unavoidable - but all the evidence shows that an integrated education is superior to a segregated one, the grades and the scores, but even more than that the social networking that comes out of an integrated education.

"That is not to say you can't have an absolutely first-rate all-black school. There are a few such examples, but I think the term people use is `Can you bring that to scale?' Is that something you can have as a nationwide thing?

"I think the legacy of the Brown case is that it transformed the particular values of the country. It gave rise to equal rights for women, gays, Hispanics, elderly people, handicapped people. The whole notion of equality became pervasive. It transformed the status of black people."

Mr. Holmes: "It opened the doors to people thinking about equality in ways they hadn't really thought of before. It certainly opened the door for opportunity: People may have dreamed of opportunities, but they weren't able to manifest them. I think of my being dean of a law school as the offshoot of Brown.

"Of course, the other side of the legacy is that it also demonstrated how deep-seated some of the racial animus in the country was in terms of the reaction to Brown - the massive resistance. ... I don't think anybody could have predicted that it would have been that fierce."

Mr. Greenberg: "They got up and they argued in the Brown case that they couldn't integrate the schools because blacks were diseased, whites won't go to school with them, and things like that. The lawyer from one state said to the court, `I can tell you that we're never going to send our children to school with black kids.' And [Chief Justice Earl] Warren said, `I want you to tell me you'll make an honest effort to integrate the schools.' And [the lawyer] said, `Keep honest out of it.' That's a quote. And Warren said, `No, Put it back in.' You figured there would be resistance, but I didn't think there would be things like Little Rock, or [the] Meredith [march]."

Moderator: "Success was in creating this level of opportunity, this consciousness of racial equality and opportunity that heretofore was not present in American society?"

Mr. Holmes: "Like I said, the dreams were there, but the manifestations, the manifestations were all blocked and limited. So you could say it uncapped the dreams. Would you agree with that, Jack, that it uncapped the dreams?"

Mr. Greenberg: "Oh, yeah. It made things possible. A lot happened. A black person could not get a Ph.D. in the South before 1954.

"One thing that has developed is a large, substantial, effective and prosperous black middle class. That never existed before. You had the doctor and the lawyer and the undertaker. The lawyers that I knew who were black weren't very prosperous. You had the newspaper publishers, like in Baltimore, Carl Murphy. You had the Mitchell family, but that was it. Now you have quite a substantial black middle class, and you've got to balance that off with the unemployed and the low-income. A black man in Harlem has the life expectancy of a man in Bangladesh. ... So that's the downside."

Mr. Holmes: "I agree ... and the black middle class as a group still hasn't figured out how to use the power that it has garnered ... the monetary power, the voting power and the like. I think we still haven't figured that one out yet. So, 50 years from now, maybe we will have figured that out so that middle class can become a real force for addressing the issues of the lower-income black community. Fifty years from now, it's economics, it's employment. ... And that to me is a bigger challenge because it's harder to identify what to do about it."

Sun reporter M. Dion Thompson moderated the conversation.

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