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Speaking volumes about Brown: scholarly works review the record of the landmark mid-20th century ruling.

If the 50th anniversary celebration of Brown v. Board of Education is muted in many school districts, it is quite understandable. Some of these districts are more segregated today than they were back in the 1950s. A recent report discloses that 70 percent of black students attend schools in which racial minorities are a majority, and that more than a third are in schools that are almost entirely minority.

Such continuing problems and all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary have inspired a batch of new and revised books about that historic decision. In contrast to the layman's overview provided by Black Issues' Unifinished Agenda (see excerpt, page 14), the three titles reviewed here, taken together, are perfectly suited for an instructor guiding students over this legal milestone. (See sidebar, "More Brown Commentary," for additional recently released titles.)

Originally published in 1993 (anticipating the 40th anniversary) with the title Removing a Badge of Slavery, the reissued Brown v. Board of Education: A Documentary History by Mark Whitman is a documentary approach that provides an overview, placing Brown in proper historical context. Such significant cases and decisions as Plessy v. Ferguson, Sweatt v. Painter, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents that preceded Brown are thoughtfully dissected, particularly Plessy, the wellspring of the separate but equal doctrine that Brown overturned.

Whitman originally assembled documents, briefs and arguments pertinent to Brown. But the 50th anniversary reprint of Whitman's book has a new Preface and some updating. One of the book's most dramatic excerpts is the exchange between Thurgood Marshall, who was the lead counsel for the appellants, and Justice Felix Frankfurter. "Do you think that this law was passed for the same reason that a law should be passed prohibiting blue-eyed children from attending public schools?" Frankfurter asked Marshall during his oral argument. "You would permit all blue-eyed children to go to separate schools? You think that this is the case?"

"No, sir," Marshall replied, "because the blue-eyed people in the United States never had the badge of slavery which was perpetuated in the statutes...."

After the outline of events comes the comprehensive discussion of Brown, which Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond and Leland B. Ware do in Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution. It's the three Cs to which a fourth could be added: for the "context" that makes the book so valuable and complementary to Whitman's text.

"Custom and law presumed the freedom and autonomy of white individuals and the slave stares for blacks," the authors note in their introduction. "The doctrine of racial inferiority became more than the proffered rationale explaining the anomaly of chattel slavery in a free society. Instead, it became a fall fledged ideology that allowed the South and the nation not only to reconcile slavery with the nation's ideals, but also to proclaim that the institution was not merely good for whites but indeed a positive benefit to the inferior and dependent Negro as well." What they show unequivocally is that white Americans had a considerable psychological, as well as economic, investment in the doctrine of black inferiority.

Where Whitman's chronicle provides the reader with a snippet of a case, Cottrol, Diamond and Ware explore it fully, examining the culture and customs that created a statute or law relegating black Americans to bondage or second class citizenship.

What "Brown v. the Board of Education" Should Have Said, edited by Jack M. Balkin, has a simple premise: allow some of the nation's top legal experts to rewrite the landmark opinion. But before such renowned legal scholars as Derrick Bell, Drew Days and Catherine A. MacKinnon are allowed to concur or dissent, Balkin offers his own assessment in a critical introduction and the iconic impact of Brown.

Professor Bell, best known for resigning from the faculty at Harvard Law School in protest of their failure to hire a tenured black woman professor, weighs in with a dissenting opinion from the justices in 1954. "I dissent today from the majority's decision in these cases because the detestable segregation in the public schools that the majority finds unconstitutional is a manifestation of the evil of racism the depths and pervasiveness of which this Court fails even to acknowledge, much less address and attempt to correct," he began.

The conclusion of each book dovetails neatly with a remark that Cecilia Marshall, Thurgood Marshall's widow, made during a recent ceremony opening an academy in her husband's name in Harlem. "There is still much work to be done," she said.

These three books alone cannot bring about that day, but they are immensely important in helping us understand what needs to be done.

Brown v. Board of Education: A Documentary History Edited by Mark Whitman, Markus Wiener Publishers February 2004, $22.95, ISBN 1-558-76330-9

Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution by Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware, University Press of Kansas/Lawrence October 2003, $25.00, ISBN 0-700-61288-2

What "Brown v. Board of Education" Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Landmark Civil Rights Decision Edited by Jack M. Balkin, New York University Press (2001), September 2002, $19.00, ISBN 0-814-79890-X

More Brown Commentary

Here are a few other recently released titles worth examining.

All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. W.W. Norton & Company, April 2004 $25.95, ISBN 0-393-05897-2

Ogletree, a civil rights scholar and Harvard Law School professor, examines the profound effects of the historic ruling on his own life as well as on the lives of all Americans, in efforts to achieve equality.

Silent Convenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell Oxford University Press, April 2004 $25.00, ISBN 0-195-17272-8

Renowned law scholar Bell contends that while Brown recognized racial injustice, it nevertheless left racial barriers intact.

Brown v. Board. The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court Edited by Leon Friedman The New Press, May 2004 $29.95, ISBN 1-565-84913-2

In the Preface, Friedman poses the question, Does Brown deserve all of the praise today? His book includes several court cases that begs the reader to ponder the question

Black, White, and Brown. The Landmark School Desegregation Case in Retrospect Edited by Claire Cushman and Melvin I. Urofsky, CQ Press, March 2004, $45.00, ISBN 1-568-02911-X

A collection of assays that examines Brown and its impact on American life and constitutional law.

The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream by Sheryll Cashin Public Affairs, May 2004 $26.00, ISBN 1-586-48124-X

This book asks why America remains as segregated as ever by race and class, and it argues that this trend undermines Democracy.

--Herb Boyd

Herb Boyd is a regular contributor to BIBR. His biography of Sugar Ray Robinson is due in the winter (Amistad, 2005).
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Title Annotation:"Brown v. Board of Education: A Documentary History," "Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution" and "What 'Brown v. Board of Education' Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Landmark Civil Rights Decision"
Author:Boyd, Herb
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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