Brown at 50
A quarter century ago, while attending a 25th anniversary celebration of Brown v. Board of Education, Constance Baker Motley was met at an Alabama airport by a college student who was assigned to pick her up and take her to the event.
Now a senior U.S. district judge in New York City, Motley had been a young lawyer on the staff of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the group that litigated Brown.
When the student asked Motley about the conference, she replied, “We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Brown.”
The student responded, “Who’s that?”
“And that,” Motley told a conference on Brown this winter, “is when I knew it was 25 years after Brown.”
Another quarter century has passed, and yet another generation is primed for a refresher course on the landmark case that added fire to the civil rights movement by ending legal segregation in public schools.
“Brown was a catalyst for forms of change in American life and legal structures,” says Louis H. Pollak, a federal judge in Philadelphia who was part of the LDF staff in the 1950s. “It went beyond simply telling the government not to enforce racial segregation. It put the force of law affirmatively on the side of the promotion of equality. Without Brown, it’s hard to see that we could have moved even as far as we have.”
Brown came at a watershed moment in American society. By the 1950s, the United States had beaten fascism and was grappling with the communist world. The great migration of African-Americans from the rural south led to the formation of new neighborhoods in the industrial, urban North. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball, and President Truman had desegregated the armed forces—a key moment, according to Motley.
“That signaled a change in our nation’s public policy,” Motley told an audience at Columbia University this winter. “I feel the Supreme Court got its inspiration from Truman in 1948.”
The grass roots were already pushing for change. “Teachers organized themselves in Virginia,” says Richmond, Va., lawyer Oliver Hill, also an LDF staff member.
“Prior to Brown, the impact of apartheid America was felt by many of us,” says LDF president Elaine Jones, who will step down from that post in May. “I knew what the back of the bus was like. I knew about the water fountains—one marked white, the other marked black. The segregation in the cafeteria, the auditoriums, even in the courtrooms, it was a part of our natural fabric. It was seismic. It ushered in the era of massive resistance.”
Presiding over the band of LDF lawyers was Thurgood Marshall, who masterminded the Brown litigation. A larger-than-life figure, Marshall came to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a protégé of pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston.
Marshall was one of the lawyers who argued the case before the Supreme Court—which he later joined, becoming the first black justice.
Motley and Pollak were among the foot soldiers. They burned the midnight oil at LDF’s Manhattan headquarters, dodged defiant law enforcement officers in the South, and pressed their cases before reluctant judges. Other LDF colleagues included Hill; Robert L. Carter, now a federal judge in New York City; William T. Coleman, now a Washington, D.C., attorney; Jack Greenberg, now a Columbia law professor; and the late James Nabrit Jr. and Spottswood Robinson.
“There could not have been anything more challenging than working with Thurgood and that group of extraordinary people,” Pollak recalls. “Not only were they fine lawyers, they were fine citizens.”
Volumes have since been written about Marshall, but to the young lawyers in his charge, Marshall provided focus, inspiration and leadership.
“He was an able lawyer, a leader with the most marvelous spirit about life and an extraordinary sense of humor that could deflate every pomposity,” Pollak says.
“There were serious problems, both tactical and strategic,” Pollak continues. “When we needed to make a decision, Thurgood made it. It taught us a lot about life.”
In arguing the case before the high court, Marshall also had the task of going up against one of the most respected lawyers in history. John W. Davis was a master appellate litigator who had just scored a prominent victory in 1952 over President Truman in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, the steel seizure case.
Davis “was a marvelous lawyer who had to rely on the desirability of adhering to stare decisis,” says Earl E. Pollock, who was a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren. “That does not exactly get people’s juices flowing.”
“Marshall was very effective,” Pollock adds. “To some extent, he had the advantage of being able to make a more emotional argument based on fairness and morality.”
When the Supreme Court opinion was announced on May 17, 1954, the LDF lawyers were jubilant. But, at the same time, they realized how much of the battle was left to fight.
“The day it was announced, I was in New York,” Judge Pollak says. “It was glorious news, perfectly terrific.” But, he adds, “Many of us kind of naively thought the world would be transformed. We underestimated the resistance to change.”
Carter, too, remembers when Brown was decided.
“Everyone thought [the civil rights battle] was over,” Carter says. He soon realized, though, that “the problem was white supremacy” and the task to “remove the government mandate of segregation” would continue.
ABA HOSTS BROWN EVENTS
The ABA is sponsoring several events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Among them are a public seminar this month and a reargument of the case at the association’s annual meeting in August.
The seminar, offered in partnership with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, will feature a panel discussion of experts on the legal, ethical and public policy issues emanating from Brown.
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who chairs the ABA Brown Commission, will moderate the program, scheduled April 29 at the center’s Kirby Auditorium.
Ogletree has moderated dozens of similar programs, many of which have been nationally televised on PBS. The program will be presented to a live audience of lawyers, judges, bar leaders, educators and the general public.
The ABA also is planning a reargument of Brown at the association’s annual meeting in Atlanta. The program will feature a mock argument before the Supreme Court and will look at jurisdictions where the segregation of school districts meets or exceeds 1954 levels. Prominent lawyers and judges will play the roles of advocates and justices.
In addition, the Damon J. Keith Collection exhibit, “Marching Toward Justice: The History of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” will be displayed at the meeting.
For more information on these and other events, check the ABA Web site at www.abanet.org/brown.