Brown v. Board of Education

  • November 16, 2011
    Guest Post

    By David H. Gans, Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights & Citizenship Program, Constitutional Accountability Center; this analysis is cross posted at CAC’s Text & History blog.

    There are few areas of the law as deeply polarizing and emotionally heated as the application of the Constitution’s guarantee to all persons of the equal protection of the laws.  What is lost – all too often – in this heated and polarized discussion is the text and history of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause itself, along with the full sweep of our constitutional history: the principle of equality first stated in the Declaration of Independence, perfected in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and further illuminated in the Nineteenth Amendment and other Amendments.

    That’s what makes a new study by Constitutional Accountability Center entitled Perfecting the Declaration: The Text and History of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required reading.   Perfecting the Declaration, the fourth in CAC’s Text and Narrative Series, tells the story of how the American people redeemed the Constitution from the sin of slavery and rewrote the Constitution to guarantee equality to all persons, bringing the Constitution back in line with the principle of equality laid out in the Declaration.  In the Equal Protection Clause, “We the People” perfected the Declaration by writing into the Constitution’s text that all “person[s]” are equal, not just that “all men are created equal.”  The story of this constitutional transformation is essential to the Supreme Court’s many landmark rulings honoring the Constitution’s promise of equality for all persons, including Brown v. Board of Education, Reed v. Reed, whose 40th anniversary is being celebrated this week at a star-studded panel in Washington, D.C., and Romer v. Evans.  As important, this story is critical to on-going efforts to persuade courts and, ultimately, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to take the next step and strike down state laws that deny gay men and lesbians the right to marry the person of their choice.  

  • November 3, 2011
    Elbert Parr Tuttle
    Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution
    Anne Emanuel

    By Anne Emanuel, a law professor at Georgia State University College of Law.

    Elbert Parr Tuttle. In his time his name was synonymous with integrity. That unassailable reputation -- hard earned as an Atlanta lawyer in the first half of the twentieth century and as the commander of an artillery battalion in the Pacific Theater in World War II -- served him well when he took over as Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit in December of 1960. The next month, sitting alone, he lifted a stay only hours after it had issued. Because of his swift, decisive action, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter registered at the University of Georgia that very day.

    The importance of that historic order can hardly be exaggerated. Six long years had passed since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education and nothing had happened. In five southern states – Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina – public elementary and high schools remained totally segregated. In others there had been token integration; in North Carolina, for instance, 60 black students attended school with white students, leaving the remaining 319,000 in segregated schools. Even less had happened on the voting rights front; black voters remained almost completely disenfranchised across the south.

    As Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit -- then covering Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas – Tuttle led the way in enforcing the constitutional rights of black Americans, in dismantling the American apartheid known as Jim Crow. The task was dangerous and difficult. Tuttle dealt not only with the massive resistance of  demagogues in high and low office, but also with the obstructionism of federal judges committed to protecting the southern way of life, to prohibiting “race mixing,” in the parlance of those troubled times.

  • October 4, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    In the third session of the American Constitution Society’s webcast series, “What the Constitution Means and How to Interpret It,” former NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Theodore M. Shaw will delve into the Constitution’s principle of equality.

    During a 30-minute live-streamed discussion, Shaw, a law professor at Columbia University and of counsel at Fulbright & Jaworski, will discuss the seminal case Brown v. Board of Education, gender equality, and congressional enforcement of civil rights. Following a 15-minute presentation, Shaw will take questions for 15 minutes.

    Other webcasts in the nine-part series on understanding the Constitution will focus on democracy, criminal justice and liberty. Each session, led by a preeminent scholar, mirrors a chapter in the ACS-published book, Keeping Faith with the Constitution, by Pamela Karlan, Goodwin Liu and Christopher H. Schroeder.

    Both lawyers/law students and non-lawyers are encouraged to participate and interact with questions, tweets and Facebook comments. If you are on Twitter, please join ACS both during and after tomorrow’s session at the hashtag #ACSclass.

    The Oct. 5 webcast will occur at 12 p.m. EDT and is free and open to everyone.  To see the full schedule and accompanying readings, visit the web page for “What the Constitution Means and How to Interpret It.”

  • April 15, 2010
    Mendez v. Westminster
    School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights
    Philippa Strum

    By Philippa Strum, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center

    In 1943, a decade before Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court, Soledad Vidaurri walked up to a schoolhouse door in Orange County, California. Mrs. Vidaurri had come to the Westminster Main School, in the heart of citrus-growing country, to enroll her two daughters and her niece and two nephews-Sylvia, Gonzalo Jr. and Jerome Méndez -in the neighborhood public school.

    The Vidaurri girls were welcomed to the school. They were light-skinned and their part-French father's last name sounded acceptably European. The Méndez children, however, were visibly darker and had a Mexican name. They would have to go to the "Mexican" school a few blocks away.

    "No way," an outraged Mrs. Vidaurri exclaimed, and marched all the children home to the farm on which they lived. Her brother and sister-in-law, Gonzalo and Felícitas Méndez, after petitioning school authorities unsuccessfully, brought suit against the school district. Mendez v. Westminster became the first case in which a federal court declared that "separate but equal" was not equal at all.

  • February 3, 2010

    Largely premised on the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision, which galvanized the civil rights movement, the U.S. Supreme Court's reputation for protecting minorities' rights is not often challenged. But, according to Harvard Law Professor Michael Klarman, that conventional wisdom is a myth.

    In "Has the Supreme Court Been Mainly a Friend or a Foe to African Americans?" at SCOTUSblog, Klarman argues that, over the course of its history, the Court has repeatedly proven to be "regressive force on racial issues."

    By way of example, Klarman observes: 

    Before the Civil War, the Court sustained the constitutionality of federal fugitive slave laws, invalidated the laws of northern states that were designed to protect free blacks from kidnapping by slavecatchers, voided Congress's effort to restrict the spread of slavery into federal territories, and denied that even free blacks possessed any rights "which the white man was bound to respect." After the Civil War, the Court freed the perpetrators of white-on-black lynchings and racial massacres, and it invalidated a federal law designed to secure blacks equal access to public accommodations. Well into the twentieth century, the Court sustained the constitutionality of state-mandated racial segregation and various southern state measures for disenfranchising African Americans.