THIS WEEK HARVARD LAW School celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools, Brown v. Board of Education. The importance of this decision cannot fairly be explored in an editorial and nothing of the sort will be attempted here, especially when others who have researched more and lived through Brown and its aftermath have published notable books and articles on the subject. Many of those who are participating in this week’s celebration are such individuals, giving HLS students a golden opportunity for learning and understanding.
Students are encouraged to attend these events and take advantage of the presence of so many who know so much about what amounted to a turning point in U.S. history. Classes will undoubtedly conflict with some of the scheduled times, but it is disappointing that so few students have thus far attended these events. Brown is a decision that is important for every student, regardless of color or socio-economic background. Brown was a notable blow to segregation everywhere, though the facts of the case limited the decision to only public schools. But it was clear following other Supreme Court decisions that the Court was ready to end the policy of segregation for other areas of society, thus ending a tragic period of separating the races, or at least state-sanctioned separation.
It is true, as University of Virginia School of Law Prof. Michael Klarman said on Monday, that Brown was not the beginning of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Those dedicated to civil rights, like Justice Thurgood Marshall, had been working for years for equality and Brown was just one consequence of that work. But while the Court, according to Klarman, may have seen themselves as “piggy-backing on those changes” that were taking place in society in respect to racial equality, once Brown was issued it was clear that the Court was opening a new front in the battle against racism, one that it would have to fight alongside civil rights workers, not behind. This is not to equate the Court’s work with the sacrifices of those who worked at the grassroots level, were killed by those unwilling to change, or who embodied desegregation by their very presence in what were previously all-white schools. No, without these individuals and their sacrifices Brown would have largely been meaningless. But what the Court did was provide new muscle to the civil rights movement and, through its decisions, made sure those who opposed integration had little room to legally maneuver. Those nine justices, despite that many were wavering a year before and despite the use of the controversial empirical studies in their opinion, should be celebrated for the ruling they handed down.
These are some of the themes that have been and will be explored throughout the week. Unlike attending class, which some would argue is worthless given that one can learn the material through studying the text, much of what is happening this week would be difficult to study given that it involves personal experiences that will probably never be published. But such stories, like those offered on Tuesday by some of Justice Marshall’s clerks, offer a glimpse into who he was and what was important to him.
Professor Ogletree should be commended for the work he has done to bring these notable individuals together this week and for providing this unique insight for interested students. It is hoped his work will not go unappreciated through lack of attendance by the HLS community.