Looking Back at Brown v. Board of Education

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered the desegregation of the nation's schools. While the ruling did not, of course, prove to be a panacea for the problem of uneven educational opportunities for Americans of different races, at the time it passed it was widely hailed as a triumph for the cause of equality. Indeed, to many it signified that African-Americans no longer needed to settle for separate, second-class status in American society.

Two Atlantic Monthly articles written close to the time of the ruling indicate the level of optimism with which the ruling was greeted both by African-Americans and champions of their cause. In "Segregation and the Supreme Court," an article that appeared just two months after the May 17, 1954, decision, the Harvard Law School professor Arthur E. Sutherland argued that in some sense the ruling should not come as a great surprise, because the tide of public opinion had been gradually turning in favor of racial equality and integration for a long while, and thus "a change for the better has been long coming."

Sutherland explained that in order to rule against the practice of school segregation the justices had needed to be able to make a case that separate schools for black children violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, according to which all citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law. Indeed, the Court had concluded that (as Sutherland wrote, paraphrasing the opinion written by Chief Justice Warren), "[Segregation] generates a feeling of inferiority as to [African-Americans'] status in the community; it may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Sutherland fervently hoped that the unanimity of the judges's ruling would convince other Americans of the rightness of their decision. "One should never forget," he wrote, "the immense moral pressure of such a great judgment as that just announced, and its capacity to persuade men of good will who have been doubting and hesitating." After all, he emphasized, underlying this important case were fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of America's government and how it intended to treat its citizens.

What is right? What is truth? What is justice? Back of the decision lay ideas of the spiritual origin of individual man, and the bright hope of the eighteenth century that somehow it would turn out that all men are created equal.

Six years later, Benjamin E. Mays, the president of Morehouse College and a prominent African-American spokesman, weighed in on how the ruling was affecting race relations. In the years following the court case, the civil-rights movement had gathered momentum. African-Americans had begun to engage in non-violent activism under the leadership of Martin Luther King and others, protesting the exclusion of blacks from full participation in American life. Some whites, dismayed by this turn of events, pointed to the desegregation ruling as a partial cause for the upheaval. But in "A Plea for Straight Talk Between the Races" (December 1960), Mays argued that although some perceived the new outspokenness of the black community as the result of a breakdown in communications between the races, in fact it represented a new spirit of openness and candor.

In the past, he pointed out, blacks had been afraid to convey to whites any messages other than what they believed whites wanted to hear:

White people got their information from two main sources: one source was their cooks, maids, and chauffeurs. These servants wanted to hold their jobs, and so they told their white employers what they wanted to hear—the Negro is happy with segregation ... The white South's other source of information was equally deceptive. Many Negro leaders ... courted the favor of the whites either because they were economically dependent upon them or feared that unfortunate economic and physical consequences would follow if they told white people the truth. If what is communicated is false, it can hardly be called communication.

The school-desegregation ruling, however, had given African Americans a newfound confidence, enabling them to feel more comfortable speaking up and making their true desires and aspirations known.

The May 17, 1954, decision of the United States Supreme Court cleared the air for honesty between the races ... Negroes do not wish to be branded as inferiors by being segregated, and they want to walk the earth as human beings with dignity. We are now beginning to communicate without hypocrisy and without fear.

Thus, he argued, though the new state of black-white relations might, on the surface, be more contentious than the old cordial but profoundly unequal relationship, the new state of affairs was in most ways an improvement. "The old hypocritical kind of communication between the races has broken down," he wrote, "and that is good. We can now build good human relations on truth, honesty, and sincerity."

—Sage Stossel