Social Education 66(1), pp.70-71
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

Brown v. Board of Education:
A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy

By James T. Patterson

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 285 pp.

Reviewed by Erik J. Shager

 

Recently, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) launched a $3 million advertising campaign in major urban areas featuring working-class African Americans touting the benefits of school choice for families of color.1 According to its informational brochure, the BAEO seeks an “improved and stronger education for Black children.” Tax-supported vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools is one strategy that the BAEO endorses to provide equal access to educational opportunities for all U.S. children, white and black. As Howard Fuller, President of the Board of Directors of the BAEO, states, “A canyon divides America. On one side, with few educational options are low-income parents, mostly of color. On the other side, with many choices, are middle-and-upper-income, mostly white parents.”2

If the tone of this argument sounds familiar, it is because equal opportunity for black schoolchildren was at the center of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund argument in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Although the immediate goal was to end legalized segregation in public schools, the hope was that desegregation would lead to better educational opportunities for all children. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of this landmark decision, it is troubling that these inequalities in public education still exist. It is additionally troubling that schools, according to Gary Orfield and the research findings of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, “are becoming increasingly segregated and are offering students vastly unequal educational opportunities.”3 Additionally, of the twenty-six central city districts with more than 60,000 students in 1998-99, five were more than 90 percent nonwhite and a large majority had fewer than 20 percent white students. In Detroit and New Orleans, nine out of ten students were African American.4

For educators who teach Brown in their classroom, these statistics should challenge our notions of the lasting importance of Brown. Was it not the correct decision or was it simply not as important as we are led to believe? In declaring it a landmark decision, have we killed the living controversy of its legacy?

In Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy, James T. Patterson, a historian at Brown University, addresses these issues and other legacies of Brown. In a thoughtful, balanced approach, Patterson examines the legal, social, and political consequences of the decision. Patterson identifies the tensions and explains the controversies surrounding this decision. He carefully takes the reader on a historical tour of the decision, documenting the early efforts of Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund, the resistance the decision met in the South, and the various attempts to remedy de facto segregation in the North.

Throughout this journey, Patterson exposes the reader to the decisions of parents, lawyers, and the courts leading up to and after Brown. Although these decisions may not have been viewed as controversial at the time, many, through the benefit of hindsight, have become so. For instance, the sociological data that Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented, which the Defense Fund incorporated into its case to prove that segregation had a harmful effect on African-American children, has come under fire. Clarence Thomas has gone so far as to refer to the research as “racist” because it implied that that African-American children were unable to learn unless they were educated with whites (pp. 200-201). Others argue that the sociological data was not even necessary in Brown; the damage of racial segregation was self-evident and could stand on its own.

The rulings of the Supreme Court, and the behind-the-scenes dealings struck in order to garner those rulings, also contributed the legacies of Brown. Patterson’s ability to weave together these decisions and rulings into one coherent story may be the strongest aspect of this book. The most important piece of this story may come not from Brown, but from the Court’s follow-up ruling in Brown II. In Brown II, the Court, in order to satisfy its connections to the South, relied on the now famous order of “all deliberate speed” in regard to the timetable along which schools were to be integrated. As a result of this vague order, delayed action and outright resistance to integration was widespread throughout the South. Most important, Brown II said nothing about the de facto segregation that existed in the North. Not until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the rulings of the Court that followed did meaningful efforts at integration proceed.

Patterson is confident in his beliefs that Brown was the correct decision and that the remedies set forth in Brown II were the best that could be done considering white attitudes prevalent in the South at the time. The alternative, the continuation of de jure segregation, was unacceptable. The end result, Patterson states, is that “Brown called for changes that the Court itself could not enforce. In time, however, some of those changes came to pass, even in schools, those most highly sensitive of institutions” (p. 222). What remains, however, are those changes that did not come to pass as a result of Brown. America still faces an academic achievement gap between black and white students. White flight from the many urban areas resulted in de facto segregation, particularly in the North. And we are left with a school-funding situation wherein suburban school districts drastically outspend urban ones.

As a high school social studies teacher who has taught Brown v. Board of Education in the past, I find this book a necessary addition to the literature on Brown for two specific reasons. First, most state academic standards that impart what students should learn in the social studies identify Brown as a Supreme Court decision necessary for inclusion in social studies education. Brown is mentioned in the social studies standards documents of fifteen states—the most of any Supreme Court decision.5 In addition, California, New York, and Texas, the states responsible for educating more than 50 percent of public schoolchildren in the United States, are three of those fifteen states.

Second, this book can help educators identify what should be taught about Brown. In my initial evaluation of the treatment of the Brown decision in high school U.S. history and government textbooks, and in discussions with other social studies teachers who teach Brown in their classrooms, I noticed that Brown has taken on iconic status; it has become the “slam dunk” of all Supreme Court decisions. Brown is spoken of in a matter-of-fact manner: The decision was the right decision—de jure segregation in public education was wrong and the Supreme Court was right to declare it unconstitutional. Much of the controversy that Patterson identifies has been removed, and teachers present the decision with little reference to the controversy that surrounded its beginnings or its continuing legacy.

Like Patterson, I agree that Brown
should be praised for assisting in some major developments in race relations since the 1950s—among them, an inspired civil rights movement, stronger federal civil rights laws, an expansion of public education, and, most important, an end to de jure segregation in public education. Patterson is also correct that we should not ignore the troubling legacy of Brown. To do so would be a disservice to all who have fought so hard for equal educational opportunities for all children. Therefore, we should examine Brown and its legacy by focusing on some of those issues that still confront us today—de facto segregation in schools, the academic achievement gap, and inequalities in cross-district funding.

 

Notes

1. USA Today (May 6, 2001).

2. Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities, Give Parents a Choice, Give Children a Chance. (Brochure). (Milwaukee: Author, 2000).

3. Gary Orfield, Schools More Separate: The Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2001).

4. Ibid.

5. Anand R. Marri, Supreme Court Cases Found in the Fifty States’ Social Studies Standards Documents (Unpublished manuscript, 2000).

 

Erik J. Shager is a high school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.