Washington Lawyer
Cover Story

Two Score and Ten Years Ago:

Brown v. Board of Education

By Joan Indiana Rigdon
May 2004

A little over 50 years ago, on the morning of December 8, 1953, two black attorneys stood outside the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., and hailed a taxi. The driver did not have to ask where his fares were going. He recognized the tall mustachioed man as Thurgood Marshall, the constitutional law expert who was representing the plaintiffs in the reargument of Brown v. Board of Education, an amalgam of five cases that sought to abolish segregation in public schools. The other man was one of Marshall’s co-counsel, William T. Coleman Jr. The driver turned south on Connecticut Avenue. He knew Marshall was due at the Supreme Court by 10 o’clock. 

Marshall and Coleman were nervous. The previous December, Marshall and several other lawyers had argued the Brown cases before the Supreme Court. They had told the justices that it was impossible to have schools that were separate but equal, and that the very act of forcing black children to attend separate schools was harmful and therefore a violation of their constitutional rights.

Instead of ruling on the case that term, the Court responded with an unprecedented request. In June 1953 it asked lawyers for both sides to answer five questions before it rendered its decision. The questions related to the intentions of the Congress and the state legislatures that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Did the lawmakers of 1868 understand that the Fourteenth Amendment would abolish segregated schools, or could be used by a future Congress to abolish segregated schools? Did the Court have the power to construe the amendment that way and to abolish segregation? If so, how and how quickly should desegregation be implemented?

Coleman recently told Washington Lawyer that he still remembers the taxi ride to the reargument. He recalls thinking that for Marshall it was the culmination of nearly two decades of legal groundwork. “You’re going to have to be as good as Toussaint L’Ouverture,” Coleman told him. (L’Ouverture, also known as “the black Napoleon,” was a self-educated slave who helped drive Napoleon out of Haiti and secure Haitian independence).

Coleman recalls that Marshall said something like this: “You still don’t get it, Coleman. This issue is not one of them against us. It is an issue where if we win, they will benefit as much as or even more than we do, because history reveals that when one group dominates another, the dominant group suffers more than the one that is dominated, as the latter will always struggle for their freedom.”

Still, it was a fight, and Marshall knew it. In fact, Marshall told Coleman, he would have to be as good as Henry V was at Agincourt—where the young king led his bedraggled army to victory over French forces that outnumbered it three to one.

Marshall was in top form that day. Five months after the reargument, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court stunned Americans with a unanimous, forcefully worded opinion declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” That meant blacks who were not admitted to white schools were being deprived of their Fourteenth Amendment rights. Therefore all public schools must do the unthinkable: admit children regardless of race. It was the beginning of the end of centuries of legally sanctioned segregation.

May 17, 1954

 Marshall heard that the segregation cases would be decided on May 17, so he was in court when Chief Justice Earl Warren read the opinion. As the Associated Press rushed the news out over the wires, Marshall hurried to phone his legal team, including Jack Greenberg and Louis Pollak. 

“I was enormously gratified,” recalls Pollak, who is now a judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “I thought it was just extraordinary and great and wonderful, but not necessarily the end of the world.”

Indeed, according to Greenberg’s account in his memoirs, Crusaders in the Courts, the team’s other Supreme Court victories had been celebrated with “raucous, boozy” parties. “But after Brown there was quiet. It was all so awesome. We didn’t know what it meant or where it would lead.”

Within hours people from all over the world began inundating the winning legal team with telegrams of congratulation. One fan ended her congratulations with a note that some libraries were still segregated, and could the legal team begin work on that, too?

Other celebrations were more visceral. As Vernon Jordan, senior counsel with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, tells it, two black ministers, who were driving along the highway in Virginia when they heard the news over the radio, were so overcome with thanks that they pulled over to the side of the road and got down on their knees and prayed, using their bumper as an altar.

The Southern Manifesto

 There were prayers in the South, too, but of a different sort. The Civil War had forced southern whites to watch as blacks’ legal status changed from that of chattel to full citizens with the right to equal protection under the law. For the most part, whites had been able to deprive blacks of many of their new rights through a mixture of lynchings, intimidation, and discriminatory laws. Now, with Brown, the federal government was once again meddling with the southern way of life.

For many southerners this last was too much. Even before the decision, southern leaders rose up in defiance. In early 1954 South African anti-apartheid novelist Alan Paton began preparing articles on race relations in America for Collier’s magazine. John Stennis, Democratic U.S. senator from Mississippi, told Paton that if the court abolished segregation, “he was sure that white and Negro leaders would meet and work out an agreement amongst themselves for self-imposed segregation.” South Carolina governor James Byrnes, a former Supreme Court justice, said to Paton that segregation was justified by the “natural orders” of things.

The day after the decision, southern leaders announced their bewilderment and intentions to resist. In Washington the Evening Star reported that Georgia governor Herman Talmadge “said he would call the State Commission on Education at once ‘to map a program to insure continued segregation of the races.’” Governor Byrnes was, simply, “shocked.” North Carolina governor William Umstead counted himself “terribly disappointed.” Senator Stennis topped them all. He told the Evening Star that the justices had “abandoned their role as judges of the law and organized themselves into a group of social engineers.” On a more ominous note, Stennis said the problems posed by Brown were as far-reaching “as any we have met since the War Between the States.”

The more time segregationists had to consider Brown, the more plainly they defied it. In 1956 a group of 82 southern congressmen openly defied the authority of the Supreme Court by signing the infamous Southern Manifesto, which declared the Court had exercised “naked judicial power and substituted their personal political and social ideas for the established law of the land.” The congressmen vowed to use all legal means possible to fight Brown.

In this atmosphere black children and university students had to risk their lives to claim Brown’s prize. When they tried to enroll in white schools, they took shelter on the arms of their attorneys and federal agents as armed white mobs threatened to kill them.

Before it was over, southern governors stood in their schoolhouse doors trying to block with their bodies what they could not block in court. When federal troops restored order in Little Rock, southern leaders started referring to Arkansas as “an occupied territory.” A few pundits talked of a new civil war. It took a second reargument of Brown, many more lawsuits, the civil rights movement, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 before integration began in earnest.

Early Efforts to Desegregate

 Although much attention has been paid to Linda Brown, the 10-year-old named plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, her petition to enter a white school came late in the history of attempts to desegregate. Black parents began petitioning lawmakers to admit their children to all-white schools as early as 1787, when a group of Bostonians wrote the Massachusetts legislature. The petitioners pointed out that as they paid their share of taxes, “we are of the humble opinion that we have the right to enjoy the privileges of free men.” They went on to say that in fact they did not enjoy many privileges, including that of sending their children to Boston’s free schools, “which we think is a great grievance, as by woful [sic] experience we now feel the want of a common education.”

In 1849 famed abolitionist Charles Sumner brought the first desegregation suit, Roberts v. City of Boston. The plaintiff, Sarah Roberts, was a five-year-old who had to pass five white schools on the way to her black school. Sumner’s brief foreshadowed the arguments Marshall would use in Brown a century later. He argued that separate schools denied Sarah of equal rights, as outlined in the state constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He also argued that forcing blacks to go to separate schools is the equivalent of treating them like a lower caste, with terrible results. “A despised class, blasted by prejudice and shut out from various opportunities, they feel this proscription from the Common Schools as a peculiar brand,” Sumner wrote.

Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, ruled that although blacks were entitled to equal rights, forbidding them entry to white schools was not a violation of those rights. He also disagreed with the idea that separating blacks increased prejudice against them. “This prejudice, if it exists, was not created by law and probably cannot be changed by law,” he wrote. 

The Plessy Years

 At the close of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment made blacks full citizens entitled to equal protection under law. But the amendment did not specifically mention schools, and so school districts continued to exclude blacks.

Then, in 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed a law that, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, would spawn the greatest obstacle to desegregating schools in the 20th century. The law had nothing to do with schools; it was written for train passengers. Titled “An Act to Promote the Comfort of Passengers,” it required railway companies that carried passengers through the state to provide “equal but separate” accommodations for blacks and whites.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a shoemaker who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black, tested the law by boarding a train in New Orleans and sitting in a car reserved for whites only. A conductor asked him to move; he refused and was jailed. In court Plessy argued that the rail car segregation law violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The judge, John H. Ferguson, ruled against him. The suit made its way to the Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1896, in its most infamous decision since Dred Scott, the Supreme Court used Plessy to strike down the spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for a 7–1 majority, Justice Henry Brown conceded that although the amendment “undoubtedly” aimed to make the two races equal before law, “it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” Brown went on to declare that states had the right to pass laws allowing or requiring segregation, as long as the laws were meant for the public good.

In a passage that would dog Thurgood Marshall’s legal team half a century later, Brown also declared that the amendment did not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race. If blacks thought so, that is “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it,” he wrote.

For the next 50 years Plessy would be cited again and again as a precedent for upholding Jim Crow laws. Even Justice John Harlan’s famous dissent ultimately played a role in supporting separate schools. Although he argued eloquently that “our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” he did not specifically mention schools. That omission would figure into the Supreme Court’s initial reluctance to reverse segregation 50 years later.

With an Evil Eye and an Unequal Hand

 Separate schools continued mostly unchallenged until the mid-1930s, when the new dean of Howard University’s law school devised the strategy that ultimately delivered Brown. Charles Hamilton Houston, a native of the District of Columbia, had graduated from Harvard Law School, where he served as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He had spent the early 1930s transforming Howard’s law school from a second-rate night school to a respected full-time day school whose early graduates included Thurgood Marshall.

As Houston was settling in at Howard, the relatively new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) received its first major grant: $100,000 to wage “a large-scale, widespread, dramatic campaign to give the Southern Negro his constitutional rights,” according to historian Richard Kluger’s account in his book, Simple Justice. The money came from the American Fund for Public Service, which itself had been funded by Charles Garland, a Harvard student who had decided to forgo his $800,000 inheritance to pursue a life of farming.

The fund suggested that the NAACP use its grant to bring lawsuits in several southern states to ensure that black schools, especially in the South, were brought up to par with white ones. Faced with such costs, the South would find it easier to abolish segregation, the fund predicted. The NAACP chose Jewish civil rights attorney Nathan Margold to lead the campaign.

In a 1930 report that would later be referred to as “the Bible” of the NAACP, Margold declared it would be too expensive to sue for the equalization of individual schools. Instead he suggested challenging segregation as it was practiced, by capitalizing on the Supreme Court’s 1886 ruling in Yick Wo v. Hopkins. In that case the Court had struck down a San Francisco ordinance that banned laundries in wooden buildings. Since most Chinese ran their laundries in wooden buildings, the ordinance effectively discriminated against Chinese. The Court found that although the law seemed fair on its face, it was in fact unconstitutional because it was “employed with an evil eye and an unequal hand,” resulting in “unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances.” Margold reasoned that if the NAACP could show that separate schools were habitually unequal, the Court might be compelled to use Yick Wo to strike down segregation.

In 1934 Houston joined the NAACP and began refining Margold’s strategy. Working closely with his cousin and fellow Harvard Law graduate William Hastie (who later became the first black judge named to federal court), Houston figured that his first target should be graduate and professional schools. Since there were not many for blacks, it would be easy to show that on the graduate level states had failed to provide equal facilities for blacks. And since establishing those facilities would cost a lot, most states would find it easier simply to admit blacks to the white schools.

By the mid-1930s, Houston was collaborating on cases with his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall. In 1936 Marshall joined the NAACP’s legal staff. For the next dozen years Houston and Marshall, in consultation with Hastie, won several important antidiscrimination cases, including ones outlawing restrictive covenants, in which white homeowners agreed not to sell to blacks, and “white primaries,” in which only whites were allowed to vote.

The Graduate School Cases

 Their first graduate school victory was Gaines v. Canada, in 1938. Donald Murray had been denied admission to the University of Missouri law school because he was black. Instead Missouri had offered to pay his expenses to attend a law school out of state. Houston argued that under Plessy Missouri should either establish a separate, equivalent law school or admit Murray. The Supreme Court agreed.

Ten years later the Court sent a disappointing message about what would pass for an equivalent school. In Sipuel v. Oklahoma the Court ordered the state to immediately provide the black plaintiff, Ada Sipuel, a legal education “in conformity with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” Oklahoma responded by roping off a section of its state capitol building, adding a few faculty members, and calling the result an equivalent law school for blacks. When Marshall protested to the Supreme Court, the Court held that the arrangement was not a violation of its earlier opinion.

In the 1940s, as Houston busied himself with many other discrimination issues, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), served as its chief counsel, and continued to lay the groundwork for Brown. In 1949 he hired Jack Greenberg, a Jewish civil rights attorney who would later succeed him as the LDF’s chief counsel, and Constance Baker Motley, who endured the southern press’s constant references to her as “that Motley woman” and later became the first black woman appointed to the federal bench. In the days before Supreme Court arguments, Marshall hosted dry runs, to which he invited some of the greatest legal minds of that time, including Houston; Hastie; Coleman, the first black to clerk on the Supreme Court and a future cabinet member in the Ford administration; Pollak, a former Supreme Court clerk; James Nabrit Jr., then president of Howard University; Robert L. Carter; and many others.

In 1950, the year Houston died, the LDF won two major victories that set the stage for Brown. In the first case, Sweatt v. Painter, a postal worker named Heman Sweatt had applied to the University of Texas School of Law, but was denied admission because he was black. When Sweatt sued, Texas hastily set up a black law school in Houston with a faculty of two, no fellow students, and no library. When Sweatt appealed, the state promised to build a new black university, including a law school. In the meantime Sweatt was admitted to a temporary law school in a basement in Austin. This school offered three part-time instructors, no fellow students, and access to the state’s law library. Marshall and Nabrit appealed Sweatt’s case to the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the LDF took on McLaurin v. Oklahoma State, in which the exclusion of the black plaintiff was more subtle. In 1948 George McLaurin had applied to the University of Oklahoma to pursue a doctorate in education. After suing in the lower courts, McLaurin was admitted, but had to sit by himself, roped off from his fellow students.

In preparing Sweatt and McLaurin for the Supreme Court, Marshall planned a two-pronged attack. As usual, he asked the Court to enforce Plessy’s promise of separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites. But Marshall also pressed the Court to throw out Plessy. The Court did not take the bait. In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Fred Vinson, the Court ordered Sweatt admitted to the University of Texas law school and ordered an end to the segregation of McLaurin within the University of Oklahoma. But the justices limited their findings to higher education. More importantly, they declined to review Plessy.

The Brown Cases

 The five cases that were eventually combined under Brown came from Kansas (Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas), South Carolina (Harry Briggs, Jr. v. R. W. Elliot), Virginia (Dorothy E. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia), Delaware (Francis B. Gebhart v. Ethel Louise Belton), and the District of Columbia (Spottswood Thomas Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe). They were not particularly different from the cases that came before them, except that they all involved public schools below the college level. In the first four cases, the plaintiffs argued that segregation denied them their Fourteenth Amendment rights. The D.C. case was slightly different. Because the District of Columbia was not a state, the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply. Instead the plaintiffs argued that segregation denied them their rights to due process under the Fifth Amendment.

The lawyers did not have particularly grandiose ambitions for the cases that later made up Brown. “At the time we brought it, we did not see it as a case that would change the politics of the country,” says Jack Greenberg, who argued the Delaware case. “We saw it as a school case. We thought we would get a few kids admitted.”

As the cases proceeded toward the Supreme Court, the lawyers grappled over strategy. Although Marshall’s ultimate goal was to end segregation, he had won several cases by arguing for relief within Plessy. Now some of his colleagues, including Coleman, were pushing him to attack Plessy itself more directly.

Then there was the matter of sociological evidence. To prove that segregation harmed blacks, Marshall’s team had solicited studies from several psychologists, including Kenneth Clark, who used pink- and brown-colored dolls to show that most black children thought more positively of whites than blacks. But many of Marshall’s advisers, including Pollak, did not want to present Clark’s studies. Marshall presented them anyway.

The oral arguments began December 9, 1952, and lasted three days. For the next six months the justices debated the school segregation cases among themselves, paying special attention to the fact that neither Congress nor any state legislature had passed any law abolishing segregation. Vinson was not in support of abolishing segregation; the justices who favored abolishing segregation worried that the power to do so resided with Congress, not the Court. Their inability to unite behind a decision led to the Court’s famous five questions. Reargument was scheduled for October 1953. 

There Is a God

 As both sides scrambled to complete the research, the calculus of Brown changed again: Chief Justice Vinson died of a heart attack on September 8. Justice Felix Frankfurter, who believed that Vinson could not bring his brethren to a consensus, was happy. “This is the first indication I have ever had that there is a God,” Frankfurter is said to have remarked of Vinson’s death. President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as the new chief justice. The reargument was postponed until December.

Marshall took a pragmatic approach to the complex research the Court had requested. On the one hand, he knew that it would be nearly impossible to prove that Congress and the states that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment had intended to abolish school segregation. On the other hand, he knew the defendants’ lawyers would find it nearly impossible to prove otherwise. Marshall was correct. In its unanimous opinion, the Court said it concluded that research on the intentions of the 1868 lawmakers was inconclusive.

Instead it was the sociological evidence that the Court found most compelling. In his decision Chief Justice Warren quoted from a lower court that had ruled against the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. That court had found that segregation harmed black children by denoting their inferiority, which in turn affected their motivation to learn. “Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority,” Warren wrote. And he cited several studies put forward by Marshall’s team, including one by Kenneth Clark.

This past January, Pollak, now 84, apologized to Carter, now 82, for having opposed Carter on the question of whether to submit psychological evidence. “You were right and I was wrong,” Pollak told Carter during a Howard University School of Law panel commemorating Brown.


 Most Supreme Court watchers expected Brown would be decided by a fractured court. At first that seemed likely. At their first conference on December 12, 1952, the justices were almost evenly split. Hugo Black, Harold Burton, Sherman Minton, and William Douglas were ready to strike down segregation; Stanley Reed was not. Felix Frankfurter, Tom Clark, and Robert Jackson were not sure where they stood. Chief Justice Vinson’s inclination is the subject of debate. Relying on Burton’s and Jackson’s notes of the conference, some historians believe that Vinson was not ready to overturn segregation. However, in a taped 1962 interview with Yale University professor Walter Murphy, Douglas counts Vinson in the camp against the constitutionality of segregation.

After he arrived, Warren called a conference in which he suggested that the justices discuss their positions without voting. It was December 1953, a year after the first conference. On the basis of the views expressed, Douglas figured the split was 6–3 for abolishing segregation, with Jackson, Reed, and Frankfurter in the minority. (Frankfurter was a great civil rights advocate but was unsure if the Court could overturn segregation, given its wide acceptance among the states.)

Consensus grew, but was not complete until the very end. “There was one justice who dropped his dissent only the Saturday before the opinion was filed,” says William Coleman, who had clerked for Frankfurter. The holdout was Reed. Coleman says Frankfurter helped convince Reed by telling him, “When you dissent, you dissent because in the future the court might go the other way. But there is no future for segregation.” (In his taped interview, Douglas says Reed remarked, “Well, if you are all going to vote that way, I’m not going to stand out.”)

The brethren applauded Warren for having led them to unanimity. The Library of Congress collection includes three laudatory notes to the chief justice. “I do not think I would change a single word. . . . You have done a beautiful job,” Douglas wrote on May 11, after reviewing a draft of the opinion.

From Burton, after the opinion was rendered: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.” He ended, “To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity.”

Frankfurter was jubilant: “This is a day that will live in glory,” he wrote. “It is also a great day in the history of the Court, not in the least for the course of deliberation that brought about the result. I congratulate you.”

Although many historians disagree, Greenberg believes that segregation might have been struck down that year even if Vinson had lived. “[Vinson] voted the straight civil rights line in a whole series of cases,” Greenberg notes. Vinson voted against restrictive covenants, which had prevented blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods. He voted against Texas’s white primaries, which had excluded blacks on the grounds that the primaries were private, not public, elections. He wrote the opinions in Sweatt and McLaurin. “When it finally came down to it and he had to make a choice one way or another, he did the right thing,” says Greenberg.

To Change a Man’s Heart

 “I had an experience this past summer that just blew me away in my understanding of Brown,” says Greenberg. It happened in Budapest, where he went to consult on the integration of Roma (also known as Gypsies) into schools. “It was just going so smoothly and so successfully, compared to America, where you had nothing but massive resistance for 15 years. The reason it’s going that smoothly is the political environment is one that’s accepting of it.” Greenberg says he was awed by the European government’s support for Roma integration, including social workers and special tutors for newly integrated Roma students.

Instead of getting support from its political environment, Brown had to change its environment, “which it did, really, through the civil rights movement and over a period of 15 to 20 years,” says Greenberg. “[Brown] worked like an ice breaker through the frozen sea of segregation.”

In America the resistance started at the top. Although President Eisenhower publicly stated that his job was to uphold Brown, he refused to take a stand for or against it. Instead he undermined the Court by stating, “It is difficult through law and through force to change a man’s heart.”

When Arkansas governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to defy the federal government in Little Rock, Eisenhower dithered in such a way as to permanently stain the memory of his presidency. As the nation waited for him to act, even jazz singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong—“the No. 1 Uncle Tom,” Thurgood Marshall called him—protested. Armstrong canceled out of a goodwill tour to Iron Curtain countries, saying the federal government could “go to hell” because he did not like the way the administration was handling Little Rock. He accused Eisenhower of having “no guts” and of letting Faubus, whom he called “an uneducated plowboy,” run the federal government.

Eisenhower did overcome his reluctance to use force and restored order to Little Rock, but it was clear that his heart was not behind Brown. Infamously, he later said that appointing Warren to the Court was “the biggest damned fool mistake I ever made.”

Fifty Years Later

 Although the Supreme Court tried to word Brown to limit it to education, it paved the way for the desegregation of beaches, buses, golf courses, hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations. Even the Supreme Court became integrated; 13 years after Brown, Marshall was named an associate justice. Now many more blacks have reached the highest levels of government and business; some are chief executives of companies including American Express and Fannie Mae. As Vernon Jordan put it during a recent speech to a group of Howard University School of Law students, “Black people lead companies that wouldn’t have their parents for any but the most menial jobs.”

Brown did improve integration in education. Before 1954, 17 states required segregation in public schools, and four more states allowed it. Now, 50 years after Brown, southern schools are the most integrated in the nation, according to a January 2004 report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. One measure of that integration is the percentage of black students in white majority schools. In the South that percentage grew from zero in 1954 to 43 in 1988, according to the report, slipping to about 30 in 2001.

Many of the gains won under Brown have been eroded by demographic shifts. The movement of whites to the suburbs, changing birth rates, and increasing immigration have combined to isolate blacks in the cities, which has effectively resegregated blacks—and Latinos, the fastest growing minority. In the 2001–2002 school year, the average black attended a school where minorities formed almost 70 percent of the student body, according to the Civil Rights Project. The average Latino’s school comprised 71 percent minorities. In contrast, the average white attended a school were whites composed 79 percent of the student body. 

Several school districts have tried to increase integration by busing students across district lines, from the cities to the suburbs, and vice versa. But those efforts were blocked in 1974 by the Supreme Court decision Milliken v. Bradley.

Jack Greenberg, now a professor at Columbia Law School, does not expect great strides in desegregation anytime soon. Today’s Supreme Court is much more conservative than the one that reversed Plessy. “The movement is not going anywhere in terms of litigation,” he says. “Today’s civil rights lawyers are certainly not going to make new law.” But the cases should be brought anyway, he adds. “We have to hang in there and keep fighting.” 

Looking back, some of the lawyers who fought for Brown are disappointed in how it has played out. Louis Pollak says in retrospect his hopes for Brown were too high. “I think I had what turned out to be the illusion that knocking racial constraints out of the law would somehow usher in a genuine culture of equality. And certainly that has not been the case,” he says.

“It was a decision of enormous liberating consequence, but the problems we face are pretty sober reminders that it isn’t enough to fix up what the constitutional limitations are on governmental discrimination. There’s so much actively that we have to do as a society to create the democracy and the reality that we talk about.”

William Coleman allows that the United States “has made some great progress and done some wonderful things” in terms of race relations since 1954. But Brown did not have the impact he had hoped for, either. “The fact remains that in a democratic society, the color of your skin often makes a difference in how you fare in life. I had hoped that once Brown was decided, that 20 years later, that wouldn’t be so.” Let alone 50 years later.

Freelance writer Joan Indiana Rigdon wrote about promoting better health in the March issue.

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