Why Brown v. Board of Education Disappoints - And Why That's Not All Bad

By Professor Christopher Schmidt.

Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school desegregation ruling, turned 60 this past week. This anniversary was much like previous ones, equal parts commemoration and lamentation. If there is a consistent theme to Brown anniversaries over the years, it is this: Brown promised much, but only partially delivered. Brown is a chronic underachiever. From the day it was announced, the Brown decision has been a repository of unmet expectations. Brown has always been both inspiration and disappointment. Indeed, they are two sides of the same coin.

When Chief Justice Warren announced the Court’s ruling on May 17, 1954, civil rights activists embraced the momentous event with an outpouring of optimism. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who led the battle against segregation in the courts, predicted that within five years schools across the South would be desegregated. Walter White, NAACP executive director, told a mass meeting of civil rights activists: “If I had the skill of the artist, I would build a picture of the nine justices of the Supreme Court and of decent Americans, both Negro and white, marching forward with head high and shining eyes toward democracy.” In the rear of the picture, White continued, would be “three or four pathetic figures” who were “weeping and screaming, ‘I won’t let it happen!’” History was going to leave behind this “shrinking minority” of diehard segregationists.

But reality came up far short of these inspired visions of a post-Brown future. In fact, Brown’s early performance came up short of even the most cautious of prognostications.

When Brown came down, some praised it, some condemned it, but most Americans waited to see what would happen. They waited for the Court to explain how this ruling would be implemented. A year later, in its 1955 implementation decision (often referred to at Brown II), the Court instructed lower court judges to start the process of desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” The following years saw some progress toward desegregation outside the deep South, but local school boards across the South generally waited to see the outcome of litigation. White southern lawyers proved expert at delaying desegregation.

Meanwhile, racial demagogues—those pathetic figures Walter White sought to consign to the dustbin of history—showed considerable staying power. In fact, the Brown decision actually strengthened their hand. Across the South, political leaders won votes by denouncing the Court’s ruling and promising to do everything in their powers to resist its implementation.

By the mid-1960s, when the South finally started to desegregate its schools, both the Justices of the Supreme Court and civil rights proponents transformed the meaning of Brown. Brown required not just the abandonment of laws commanding the separation of the races, they insisted, but the adoption of policies that would ensure that schools would actually achieve a measure of racial integration. With existing patterns of residential segregation worsening as whites abandoned metropolitan areas across the country, achieving racially integrated schools was becoming increasingly difficult, demanding controversial policy interventions, such as busing programs. To proclaim that fulfilling Brown’s promise required not just the erasure of segregation laws from the books but the uprooting of racially segregated patterns of education was to paint an inspiring portrait of a more racially egalitarian society. But it was also a recipe for disappointment.

Brown has always lived in the shadow of the bold expectations it has inspired. We have always demand much of this decision, and we are therefore constantly being frustrated by its failures to live up to expectations.

But frustration can have its benefits. A nation needs shared cultural symbols into which its people place their highest expectations, however idealistic. These aspirational touchstones invariably breed frustration, but frustration can lead to action—and, under the right circumstances, social change.

Consider the impact of Brown on the college students who launched the lunch counter sit-in movement of 1960. At the time of the decision, these students were in grade school, and their parents and teachers often had told them that their lives were going to be different because of the what the Supreme Court had done, that they would be going to better, racially integrated schools. This was not to be. By the time they arrived in college, they saw Brown as largely a failure. New approaches were required, they argued, ones that would not depend on lawyers and litigation, ones that could lay out the case for racial justice in a more direct and dramatic manner. The sit-in movement was born of this combustible mixture of idealism and frustration.

And today, when we lament Brown as an unfulfilled promise for a better, more racially inclusive schools, we are setting ourselves up to be disappointed. But disappointment breeds frustration, which in turn might lead to action. Perhaps out of frustration we will discover new approaches to this old problem, led by a new generation, who will be demanding that we live up to Brown’s outsized promises.