Remembering Brown v. Board of Education

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark decision eliminating the separate-but-equal doctrine. This excerpt, from the book All Deliberate Speed, examines the initial resistance by the local, state, and federal governments.

On May 17, 1954, an otherwise uneventful Monday afternoon, 15 months into Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, issued a historic ruling that he and his colleagues hoped would irrevocably change the social fabric of the United States. “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate-but-equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

At the time, no one doubted the far-reaching implications of the Court’s ruling. The [Brown v. Board of Education] lawyers had apparently accomplished what politicians, scholars, and others could not — an unparalleled victory that would create a nation of equal justice under the law. The Court’s decision seemed to call for a new era in which black children and white children would have equal opportunities to achieve the proverbial American Dream. It did not come too soon for the families whose children were victims of segregation. Having broadly proclaimed its support of desegregating public schools, the Supreme Court shortly thereafter issued its opinion — the opinion that legitimized much of the social upheaval that forms the central theme of [the book All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (W.W. Norton & Co.; $25.95)]. Fearful that southern segregationists, as well as the executive and legislative branches of state and federal governments, would both resist and impede this courageous decision, the Court offered a palliative to those opposed to Brown‘s directive. Speaking again with one voice, the Court concluded that, to achieve the goal of desegregation, the lower federal courts were to “enter such orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.” v. Board of Education had a profound and indelible impact on the United States. Declared the “case of the century,” it established that intentional segregation was unconstitutional. This ruling served to fuel the civil rights movement and to challenge the legitimacy of all public institutions that embraced segregation. However, there was significant political and legal resistance to Brown‘s mandate, and some commentators assert that because the mandate was not bolstered by vigorous enforcement, political leaders opposed to Brown could easily thwart its promise. Given the Brown Court’s lack of firm resolve, as evidenced in its express refusal to order an immediate injunction against segregation and in its “all deliberate speed” modification, public resistance was inevitable. The resistance that came from local, state and federal executive branch officials, and the absence of a coordinated effort on either the state or the federal level to enforce desegregation vigorously, compounded the Court’s failure.

 

As Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers pondered the second decision, they tried to ascertain what the Court meant in adding the crucial phrase “all deliberate speed” to its opinion. It is reported that, after the lawyers read the decision, a staff member consulted a dictionary to confirm their worst fears —

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