A New Beginning in the Quest for Equality

PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY — Princeton, New Jersey. -- Forty years ago tomorrow a unanimous Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It was a turning point not only in history of U.S. race relations, but also in the history of the United States as a whole. As a kid I read the news and wondered whether Brown would really make a difference.

The immediate aftermath did not promise the dismantling of American apartheid. Brown produced inaction from the Republican White House of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike said you can't legislate men's hearts, by which he meant that his federal government would not attempt to change any racist minds.


In Mississippi and Louisiana, massive resistance formed immediately in the state legislatures. They created taxpayer-funded institutions that spent the next decade actively obstructing the Supreme Court's order to desegregate the schools. White Citizens Councils hounded Southerners, black and white, whose opinions were not sufficiently white-supremacist. And in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till became the battered and bloody victim of white men's hysteria over the very idea of black men associating with white women.

But change did come: The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, undermined segregation in public transportation. When the governor of Arkansas blocked desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School, an uncharacteristic condemnation by jazz legend Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong stirred Eisenhower to enforce federal law. Protected by U.S. paratroops, black students desegregated the high school, braving the hatred, spittle and obscenities of white racist mobs.


A decade after Brown, the cage of legal segregation was finally being dismantled, as the local ordinances, state laws, capricious enforcement and judicial bias that had supported official white supremacy and black subordination finally began to come apart. The civil-rights movement produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together these laws revolutionized federal policy on discrimination based on sex as well as race. The official structure of Jim Crow -- the armature that fortified the humiliation and impoverishment of African-Americans -- was giving way.

Forty years later the laws of prejudice are gone, but much of the spirit of white supremacy remains, constantly reanimated by opportunist politicians and popular culture.

All over the country politicians and fearmongers work from the Southern bigots' textbooks of hate. Political campaigns and public speeches in New Jersey and North Carolina alike play with white people's fears and black people's anger. Republican presidents, Senate and House members of both parties, and candidates for state and local offices now use stereotypes to whip their constituencies, white or black, into line. And their race-baiting still gets them re-elected.

Historically, whites have made the most capital out of race-baiting, but today black demagogues have seized the opportunity to spew hatred. Hatred makes good copy, and the press obsessively reports on black bigots, quoting chapter and verse of black rancor.

The fastest way for a black person today to realize fame and fortune is to spout anti-Semitism, the more outrageous the better. The media find black beastliness so much more thrilling, it seems, than tolerance and rationality. The black voices of reason inhabit the back pages, if they are noticed at all.

In the present climate of rhetorical excess, it is easy to forget how thoroughly divided by race Americans were before the dismantling of legal segregation. Separated we were, and strictly ranked by race. Today, blacks and whites may not be on exactly friendly terms -- and often "not friendly" is a tragic understatement -- but thanks to Brown we are no longer sequestered by the official policy of the state.

If you doubt there has been progress, exercise your imagination: What if the Warren Court had upheld "separate but equal" and desegregation had not begun in 1954? Where would race relations be today if legal segregation and its myriad humiliations were still condoned and enforced in American law? And where would gender equality be without desegregation?

Our leaders seldom bring out the best in Americans, and for this reason we should reinvent the spirit of Brown vs. Board of Education. A Supreme Court decision alone, even one that was unanimous, could not undo all the mischief of centuries of slavery and discrimination. Realizing that there is no quick remedy, we need a new beginning in the quest for equality.


Nell Irvin Painter teaches history at Princeton University and is completing a biography of Sojourner Truth.