Social Education 66(1), pp.66-67
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

Teaching Brown v. Board of Education

Jennifer Brandsberg-Engelmann

Ask most people in the United States to cite a U.S. Supreme Court case that they know something about, and the first, perhaps the only, case they will mention is Brown v. Board of Education.1 This isn’t surprising. Brown is not just a decision of our high court, but is also an integral part of our social consciousness. It represents the power of our legal system to spur social changes of great magnitude and the strength of the rule of law in the face of popular opposition.

Most students learn something about Brown in their history courses. If they have mandatory government courses, students may get a double dose of Brown in school. Not surprisingly, Brown is mentioned in social studies standards documents more often than any other U.S. Supreme Court case.

The major holding of Brown—that the Fourteenth Amendment does not allow government-mandated separation based on race in public education—has become so embedded in our consciousness that it can be difficult for students to imagine arguments against the desegregation of schools. Students should understand these arguments, however, because the meaning of the constitutional concept of equality can be elusive. To understand the meaning of Brown, the cases that followed it, and our persistent policy challenges related to race today, students must develop a foundation for thinking about when “equal treatment under the law” requires the same treatment, and when equal treatment might require different treatment. (For activities on this topic, visit www.landmarkcases.org/brown/equal_same.html.)

From a legal perspective, Brown v. Board of Education is one of the clearest examples of overturning precedent in the Supreme Court’s history. Only fifty years before Brown, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson2 that separate facilities for different races were constitutional. Students learn a valuable lesson when they see how constitutional interpretation can change over time with dramatic social repercussions. Even Plessy spurred discord over the proper interpretation of the U.S. Constitution on matters of segregation. Justice Harlan wrote an eloquent dissent in Plessy that highlights the importance of dissents for future legal rulings. Although dissents do not serve as legal precedents, they can be harbingers of future decisions, as the composition and social values of the Court change.

From a historical perspective, Brown is a vital part of teaching the Civil Rights movement. The decision helped propel a successful national legal strategy against segregation and discrimination. Students must understand, however, that the public did not universally support the Brown decision. The events after Brown show just how necessary is public support for controversial decisions. The Supreme Court has no enforcement power of its own and therefore must rely on the public and other branches of government to carry out its orders. There is perhaps no clearer case of weak public support undermining a decision than Brown. Desegregation in the wake of Brown was carried out at a snai#146;s pace, despite Justice Warren’s order that it proceed with “all deliberate speed.” The ruling was further constrained by other legal battles that still continue. Many people believe that the Brown decision shows the power of law and the courts in American society, but Brown also illustrates that Supreme Court decisions—especially unpopular ones—are not self-enforcing.

A trio of activities on the Landmark Cases website (www.landmarkcases.org) help students understand these points. Students can read several editorials and examine political cartoons about the Brown case that show the divisiveness of American opinion at the time. The site also has links to Justice Frankfurter’s notes to Justice Warren on the wording of the order to desegregate. The notes and questions help students understand how the wording of a ruling can have important consequences for its effectiveness. The letter from Roy Wilkins shows that schools were not desegregated quickly. Finally, students can examine current desegregation issues that have arisen since Brown. This can help them see how the battle over desegregation still continues fifty years after the decision.

 

Notes

1. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954); Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294 (1955)

2. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

 

Jennifer Brandsberg-Engelmann was a teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland. She now lives and teaches in Zurich, Switzerland. She may be reached at knut.jennifer@bluewin.ch.