Journal of American History

Round Table

Brown v. Board of Education, Fifty Years After

Whose Integration Was It? An Introduction

Kevin Gaines provides an overview of the reassessments of Brown v. Board of Education and its legacy that appear in our round table, “ Brown v. Board of Education, Fifty Years After.” More sobering than celebratory, the essays’ critical approaches are occasioned by the decision’s limited impact and the persistence of segregation in the nation’s housing and schools. The essays recover histories submerged by triumphalist contemporary and historical narratives about Brown, histories that account for enduring inequality and the corrosive impact of racialism on American political culture. Ranging far beyond the courtroom, the essays probe the centrality of race in Cold War-era American politics and society and suggest that integration policy often arose from and served the needs of the state more than those of African Americans. (pp. 19–25) Read online >

Two Cheers for Brown v. Board of Education

Fifty years after the Brown decision, the Jim Crow system of legal segregation has been eliminated, but American public education remains racially segregated. Clayborne Carson finds the post-Brown strategy of seeking racial advancement through integration too narrow. The poor quality of many predominantly black public schools still denies many black students the Supreme Court’s ideal of educational opportunity as “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Arguments over schools’ racial composition addressed only one aspect of the problem of unequal education. Carson argues that the Supreme Court and the lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who won the Brown case, should have launched a two-pronged attack on racial segregation and unequal educational opportunity in predominantly black schools. (pp. 26–31) Read online >

Brown as a Cold War Case

American history texts often discuss Brown and the Cold War in separate passages, as if they were unrelated to each other. But Mary L. Dudziak argues that Brown is best understood as part of Cold War history. The Justice Department’s brief in Brown argued that school segregation undermined U.S. prestige in other countries, harming U.S. foreign relations. Because the Supreme Court had already been grappling with Cold War concerns in its McCarthy-era cases, such arguments were made to a receptive audience. Formal legal change in Brown improved the U.S. image abroad, whether or not actual desegregation followed. This story helps us see that seemingly “domestic” American histories have international dimensions and underscores the value of internationalizing American legal history. (pp. 32–42) Read online >

The Costs of Brown: Black Teachers and School Integration

A segregated school in White Plains, Georgia, 1941. African American teachers and students grappled with inadequate facilities, forming bonds that benefited intellectual and community development.
Courtesy Library of Congress.

Have historians overestimated the popularity of school integration among African Americans in the South? That black teachers often had misgivings about Brown has usually been attributed to self-interested conservatism. Adam Fairclough, in contrast, argues that many blacks regarded segregated schools with pride, as community institutions in which they had invested for nearly a century. Segregated schools were as much a product of black agency as of racial discrimination. From the earliest days of emancipation, black teachers had served as community leaders, and many blacks preferred them to white teachers. When the implementation of Brown caused black schools to close their doors and black teachers to lose their status and their jobs, many questioned whether integration had been worth the price. (pp. 43–55) Read online >

The Many Facets of Brown: Integration in a Multiracial Society

A local newspaper identified Y. Yanagi, shown at work, as the first Japanese American to reopen a barbershop in Little Tokyo following the wartime internment.  The poster in the background promoting National Negro Insurance Week suggests that the shop served African American customers as well as Japanese American ones.
Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

In the era of Brown, discourse about “race relations” centered on whites and blacks, but the bold demographic changes of the past fifty years compel scholars to make sense of a multiracial social order. The ongoing struggle for integration and social justice increasingly depends on the construction of multiracial coalitions. In a pioneering study of such coalitions, Scott Kurashige highlights efforts to build solidarity between black and Japanese Americans in the overlapping spaces the two groups occupied in postwar Los Angeles. Kurashige urges greater attention to the interactions between communities that are transforming American culture and politics. (pp. 56–68) Read online >

Postwar Pluralism, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Origins of Multicultural Education

Viewing multiculturalism as a departure from the vision of race relations inspired by Brown, many scholars have traced today’s prevailing racial ideology to the black power movement of the 1960s. True to that origin, critics of multiculturalism believe, it promotes separatism, overwrought group consciousness, the suffocation of individualism, and the decline of class politics. Daryl Michael Scott argues that the tendency to conflate multiculturalism with ethnocentrism ignores the continuity between multiculturalism and postwar racial liberalism. Postwar pluralist, integrationist, and therapeutic ideals, not Afrocentrism, produced a new race relations paradigm that laid the intellectual foundation for the Brown decision and served as a bridge to multiculturalism. (pp. 69–82) Read online >

“The Whole United States Is Southern!”: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race

While its symbolic importance cannot be doubted, Brown v. Board of Education did not transform race relations in the ways its advocates hoped and its critics feared. How is it that so many people on both sides of the issue initially misconstrued the meaning of the decision? Charles M. Payne argues that the initial misreadings of Brown reveal a confused understanding of the systemic character of white supremacy. The national discourse on race at midcentury, which focused on interpersonal relations and law, obscured as much as it revealed, making it difficult to see the similarities between the South and the North. Brown was a strike against segregation as law and ideology, but only a glancing blow against the more tangled problem of racism. (pp. 83–91) Read online >

From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma

To understand why Brown has not lived up to its promise, Lani Guinier traces the shortcomings of racial liberalism and calls for a new paradigm of racial literacy. In Brown, racial liberalism triumphed by perpetuating the false belief that integration was possible without significant redistribution of resources and power. Its individualistic, psychological, and prejudice-centered view of the obstacles to equality failed to anticipate the resistance of whites, north and south, who experienced integration as a loss of status. To expose the way racism structures economic and political opportunity, Guinier calls for racial literacy, an ability to read the concept of race as an instrument of social, geographic, and economic control of both whites and blacks. (pp. 92–118) Read online >

Additional Resources

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Articles

Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown

Quoting Matthew 7:17, the cover of D. B. Red’s pamphlet A Corrupt Tree Bringeth Forth Evil Fruit makes the common argument that Communists were behind school integration in the United States and that the Communists’ larger plot was race mixing. Carrying an endorsement by Mississippi senator James O. Eastland, the cover suggests that school integration will destroy racial purity.
Courtesy University of Mississippi.

The religious history of the civil rights movement is strangely one-sided. “God was on our side,” the activists have said, and scholars have tended to agree. But the opponents of civil rights also used religion in their cause. Jane Dailey argues that historians have underestimated the role of religion in supporting segregation as well as in dismantling it. Viewing the civil rights movement as a contest over Christian orthodoxy helps explain the arguments made by both sides and the strategic actions they took. Dailey examines the connections among antimiscegenation anxiety, politics, and religion to reveal how deeply interwoven Christian theology was in the segregation ideology that supported the discriminatory world of Jim Crow. (pp. 119–44) Read online >

Affirmative Action from Below: Civil Rights, the Building Trades, and the Politics of Racial Equality in the Urban North, 1945–1969

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) members picket a school construction site at Thirty-first and Dauphin streets in Philadelphia’s predominantly African American Strawberry Mansion neighborhood to protest discrimination against African Americans in the building trades, May 27, 1963. Neighborhood residents and civil rights activists from throughout the city joined the protests.
Courtesy Temple University Libraries

Affirmative action is one of the most controversial legacies of the civil rights era. Thomas J. Sugrue finds the origins of workplace affirmative action in civil rights activists’ postwar struggle to break open Philadelphia’s white-dominated construction trades. Through antidiscrimination initiatives, protests, and counterprotests in the urban North, local civil rights activists and construction unionists initiated a battle over employment discrimination that eventually made its way onto the national stage. Placing affirmative action into the history of the northern freedom struggle, Sugrue brings together the often artificially separate histories of grass-roots activism and national-level policy making. (pp. 145–73) Read online >

Exhibition Reviews

A life-size figure of Rosa Parks sits on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus restored to look as it did in 1955, when Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her refusal helped mobilize the Montgomery bus boycott.
Courtesy National Civil Rights Museum.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site; Birmingham Civil Rights Institute; and National Civil Rights Museum, by David A. Zonderman (pp. 174–82) Read online >
  • “Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America;” and “Beyond Lewis and Clark: The Army Explores the West,” by John Rennie Short (pp. 183–86) Read online >
  • “The Price of Freedom: Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act,” by Martin Blatt (pp. 187–88) Read online >
  • “The Chinese American Experience in Minnesota,” by Erika Lee (pp. 189–91) Read online >
  • “Remembering Generations: The Greek Immigrant’s Journey,” by George A. Kourvetaris (p. 196) Read online >
  • Texas Prison Museum, by Alex Lichtenstein (pp. 197–200) Read online >

Book Reviews

June 2004, Vol. 91 No. 1

Alphabetical by the last name of the book's first author or editor.

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Web site Reviews

Web site reviews are available without a subscription.

  • The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, by John Saillant (p. 347) Read online >
  • Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820, by Aaron Sheehan-Dean (p. 348) Read online >
  • Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice, and Settling the Land—A Historical Whodunit, by Stephen Robertson (p. 349) Read online >
  • The Duluth Lynchings Online Resource: Historical Documents Relating to the Tragic Events of June 15, 1920, by Scott Ellsworth (p. 349) Read online >
  • United States Senate Historical Office, by Drew E. VandeCreek (p. 350) Read online >
  • American Memory Learning Page, by Peter Seixas (p. 351) Read online >

Letters to the Editor

Announcements

Recent Scholarship

“Recent Scholarship” is available online, Read online >

June 2004 Cover

On the cover:

This photograph appeared in How about a Decent School for Me?, a pamphlet regarding the desegregation of public schools between 1942 and 1957. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the naacp Records, LC-USZ62-122614. See Round Table: Brown v. Board of Education, Fifty Years After,” p. 19.

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