Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), is one of the great constitutional law cases and perhaps the most important Supreme Court decision of the 20th century. I want to describe how I approach the case in class and what I hope students will learn.History
Brown cannot be understood in isolation from what preceded it: the history of slavery, the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and Jim Crow in the South as exemplified by Plessy v. Ferguson, 166 U.S. 537 (1896). In Plessy, the Court, over Justice Harlan’s prescient dissent, had upheld separate but equal for railroad cars, with far-reaching implications for segregation generally.
Similarly, Brown cannot be understood apart from its own specific historical setting: victory over the racist Nazi regime in the Second World War, the rise of the Soviet Union, the integration of the American military, the urgent need for workers after the Second World War and important demographic changes.
Finally, there is an obvious moral dimension to Brown, although the Court did not expressly ground Brown on moral considerations.
In this connection, I raise the question in class whether the Court in Brown was leading the nation, whether it was following the nation or some combination thereof. I also disabuse my students of the notion that the Court as an institution was particularly heroic in Brown, since its own late 19th and 20th century decisions enabled and encouraged the South to continue the segregationist policies that the Court in Brown finally began to dismantle.