Why It's Right to Remember Brown

Mr. Patterson is professor of history, emeritus, at Brown University and the author of BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION: A CIVIL RIGHTS MILESTONE AND ITS TROUBLED LEGACY (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001).

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When Ralph Ellison heard about the Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, he wrote a friend, “what a wonderful world of possibilities for the children.” Thurgood Marshall, chief litigator for the black children, agreed, commenting later, “I was so happy, I was numb.” Marshall expected school segregation to be wiped out in the South within five years.

Of course, Ellison, Marshall, and others with great expectations in 1954 were far too optimistic. The decision was indeed a civil rights milestone, but it also had a troubled legacy.[1]


Brown was a historic and even radical statement—one that no other branch of American government was seriously considering at the time. If we examine the decision within the context of the very different Jim Crow world of the early 1950s—as historians should do—we can see that the Court was bold indeed. To look back today and say that the Court should have done more in 1954—for instance, denounce racism in all its terrible manifestations, demand equality of educational resources, or spell out an affirmative standard for public education after the end of segregation—is to be ahistorical indeed.

I also disagree with writers such as Derrick Bell, who in his new book, Silent Covenants, argues that the Court should not have demanded desegregation but instead should have insisted that southern states live up to the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” doctrine of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. [2] But would white Americans, in a separate-but-supposedly-truly-equal system, have been any readier to assure equality than they have been to desegregate? Recent state court decisions mandating equality or adequacy in education have been very difficult to enforce—the courts issue orders, and the legislatures often refuse to provide the money.

The Brown decision also had immediate practical effects. In the late 1950s, the Court quietly but decisively used it as a precedent to rule against racial segregation on public buses (the Montgomery case), municipal golf courses, and public beaches. Thus the decision had a reach that quickly extended beyond schools to a few other areas where public authorities had mandated segregation.

The constitutional meaning of Brown resonates in our own times. Last year, for instance, demonstrators outside the Supreme Court, when it was hearing the Michigan affirmative action cases, held up signs reading, “SAVE Brown v. Board of Education.” Earlier this year the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided that gay marriages could legally take place in the state. They selected May 17, 2004, the 50th anniversary of Brown, as the magic date when this change might begin.

Troubled Legacies

These were the main ways in which Brown was a Milestone. What were the troubled legacies?

First, I do not claim that the decision was the key to the rise of the civil rights movement. On this subject, which has provoked a good deal of debate among historians and law professors in recent years, I tend to side with those, notably Michael Klarman, who have advanced a “backlash thesis.” [3]

A “soft” version of this thesis, as I would describe it, states that the Brown decision’s primary result in the 1950s was not the promotion of widespread civil rights activism—on the contrary, such activism in those years was slight—but, instead, the aggravation of southern white backlash. This was so powerful that even in 1964—ten years after Brown—fewer than 2 per cent of southern black children attended public schools with white children. Moreover, this argument continues, Brown encouraged Marshall and other leaders of civil rights strategy in the 1950s to cling for too long to faith in legal action, thus delaying until the 1960s the surge of direct action civil rights activity that finally aroused Congress to enact the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In short, while the Brown decision was a milestone as a constitutional statement, its effect on the powerful civil rights movement--which really expanded only six and more years after the decision—is much harder to document. Brown was necessary for the arrival of an effective civil rights movement, but not sufficient to inspire it.

There are also two especially troubled legacies. The first concerns education. At the time of the decision in 1954 Marshall, Ellison, and others understandably assumed that blacks would gain academically and therefore in life if they could attend school with whites—after all, most black schools at that time were woefully inferior in resources. Since then, the financing for public elementary and secondary education in America has greatly increased—doubling per pupil in real dollars in the past thirty years—but the so-called white-black test score gap has remained huge. This is a terrible situation that deserves much more attention than it gets. I agree with Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, who have said that fighting these gaps “would do more to move America toward racial equality than any politically possible alternative.” [4]

The other troubled legacy has to do with the long-range impact of Brown on American race relations generally. These relations are of course light years better than they were in the Bad Old Days of Jim Crown, which in time Brown helped to eradicate. But it is obvious that great tensions and misunderstandings persist. Looking only at public education, it is evident that desegregation of schools has always faced serious obstacles—from massive resistance in the 1950s and early 1960s to passive indifference in the 1990s. Indeed, a process of re-segregation has been occurring in education, especially since 1990. In 1988, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, 43 percent of black public school children in the South attended schools that were 50 percent or more white. By 2003, this percentage had dipped to 30—roughly what it was in the early 1970s, when desegregation in the South finally began. The percentages in many parts of the Northeast and Midwest are even lower.

Numbers like these help to explain why many people nowadays, including blacks, show relatively little interest in pressing for desegregation of schools. They recognize, correctly, that racially mixed schools have always been a really tough sell. In overwhelmingly black central cities, moreover, there is no strategy left except to demand equality of schools without desegregation.

Some of these advocates go on, however, to abandon the fight for desegregation elsewhere. I think this trend is unfortunate, because I agree with Orlando Patterson that black children who attend significantly non-segregated schools thereby gain some access to the vitally important networks that help young people cope in our multicultural world. [5] I also agree with Marshall, who said—in dissenting angrily in the Milliken v. Bradley case of 1974 (the landmark case that prevented amalgamation of city and suburban school districts in and around Detroit)—“unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will learn to live together.” [6]

I do not mean to dwell on the troubled legacies of Brown. To repeat, the decision was a bold, constitutionally important, symbolically useful, and necessary step toward the ultimate demotion of Jim Crow. But more than litigation—notably the morally powerful direct action phase of the civil rights movement—was needed to effect significant changes. And a great deal more still needs to be done if Ellison’s “wonderful world of possibilities for the children” is ever to be realized. It is indeed ironic that a decision that focused on public education has had so little impact on the schools, especially outside the South.


1. James Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy ( New York, Oxford University Press, 2001).

2. Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform ( New York, Oxford University Press, 2004).

3. For Klarman’s recent elaboration of this thesis, see his From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality ( New York, Oxford University Press, 2004).

4. Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, “The Black-White Test Score Gap: An Introduction,” in Jencks and Phillips, eds., The Black-White Test Score Gap (Brookings, Washington, 1998), 43.

5. Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s Racial “Crisis” (Civitas/Counterpoint, Washington, 1997).

6. Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974).

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