On the Legacy of Brown

“…Brown, seen solely as a school case, must be considered a failure.”

– Robert L. Carter, federal district court judge for the Southern District of New York, former general counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, presented part of the oral argument in Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court.

Brown v. Board of Education is known for overturning the legal doctrine of separate but equal, which was settled into national law by Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a case that said that a Louisiana statute that MANDATED blacks and whites sit in separate cars was legal. That court essentially held that separate could be equal, and any connotations of inferiority felt by black people was of their own doing, not by the law itself. Brown overturned that, saying that the state cannot enforce laws that required separation, that de jure segregation was inherently unequal because it connotated that one race, i.e., whites, were superior to the other, i.e., blacks.

Prior to Brown, the LDF hadn’t attacked segregation in public schools on its face. Rather, it had made the claim that blacks schools were not equal in facilities, curriculum, etc., and fought for the courts to order school districts to equalize black and white schools. In many cases, this strategy succeeded. But the LDF realized that they could do more; victories challenging the basis of segregation per se in higher education showed that there really was something inherently unequal in state-sanctioned separation. In law schools, for example, access to other students who were to be future colleagues, an alumni network, prestige and traditions the Court agreed were “intangibles” that equalization of facilities could never overcome.

So Brown was decided this day 57 years ago, and “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional. Continue reading “On the Legacy of Brown”