Michael Klarman: The Supreme Court Has Never Been in the Vanguard of Social Reform

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Klarman, in the NYT (May 17, 2004):

The Supreme Court has never been in the vanguard of social reform. Few people would credit it with playing a pivotal role in the women's movement, the environmental movement or the gay rights movement. Yet many people, citing the court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, insist that it played a crucial role in the civil rights movement.

The justices who decided the case knew better. Brown was possible only because significant changes in racial attitudes and practices were already taking place in America. Justice Felix Frankfurter later observed that had a challenge to school segregation reached the court in the 1940's, he would have voted to reject it because"public opinion had not then crystallized against segregation." The N.A.A.C.P. understood this, too, and refrained from directly challenging school segregation until 1950.

Although the origins of the civil rights movement are complex, the search for a catalyst goes back at least as far as World War II. The ideology of the war was antifascist and prodemocratic. In 1942, for example, The New York Times urged America to end racial discrimination in order to avoid"the sinister hypocrisy of fighting abroad for what it is not willing to accept at home."

Thousands of African-American soldiers became civil rights pioneers, reasoning that if they were good enough to risk their lives for democracy, they should enjoy some of it at home. During the 1940's, one and a half million African-Americans moved from the rural South, where they had been almost universally disenfranchised, to the urban North, where they not only voted without restriction but often tipped the balance between evenly divided political parties. As the cold war dawned, the United States government identified racial discrimination as a potentially crippling liability because it"furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills."

These and other forces were having noticeable effects even before Brown. Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947. President Harry Truman desegregated the federal military and civil service in 1948. Even in the South, significant racial reforms were afoot; black voter registration increased to 20 percent in 1950 from 3 percent in 1940. By the time of Brown, dozens of Southern cities had hired their first black police officers since Reconstruction....

Brown certainly played a role in shaping both the civil rights movement and the violent response it received from Southern whites. But racial reform in the United States was ineluctable. In the end, what the Supreme Court did or did not do was of limited importance.

comments powered by Disqus