Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


Reading and Discussion Questions
Waldo E. Martin, Jr., ed., Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History With Documents

1.In his introduction, Waldo Martin emphasizes that the NAACP litigation was only one component of a larger freedom movement. What does he mean by this? Why does it matter?

2.What is the difference between Brown I and Brown II? Waldo Martin suggests that Brown II did not live up to the promise of Brown I. Do you agree that Brown II was inadequate? Why or why not?

3.What is sociological jurisprudence? What role did it play in the Brown case?

4.Waldo Martin concludes that there was an enormous gap between “Brown’s promise of equal opportunity and the post-Brown reality of unequal opportunity for blacks” (p. 35). Explain.

5.Martin quotes a series of questions formulated by legal historian Morton Horwitz on p. 35. After you have completed all of the reading, go back and try to answer them.

Plessy v. Ferguson, majority opinion
1. Plessy concluded that segregation did not violate either the 13th Amendment (ending slavery) or the 14th Amendment (guaranteeing due process and equal protection). Explain the logic of this conclusion.

2.Why did the authors of this opinion believe that state laws requiring segregation were “reasonable” (p. 80)?

3.The opinion pointed out the error of assuming that racial integration alone could produce racial equality. Do you agree? Compare this view of integration with the one expressed in Zora Neale Hurston’s letter to the Orlando Sentinel, on p. 209.

Plessy v. Ferguson, dissenting opinion by John Harlan
1. Justice Harlan pointed out that the Constitution was color-blind and that the majority opinion misinterpreted the true meaning of constitutional equality. Yet he also insisted that integrated public transportation would not encourage the social equality between blacks and whites that was feared by so many white Americans. Are these consistent or contradictory views?

Appellants’ Brief and Appellees’ Brief
1. Compare the views of the 14th Amendment articulated in each of these documents. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Which is more persuasive? Why?

"The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation”
1.This brief attempted to summarize what contemporary social scientists knew about segregation and desegregation.
a. What was the gist of the social science contribution?
b. Why do you think that introducing this type of evidence was (and is) considered so controversial?
c. Are you persuaded by this social science statement? Why or why not?
d. If you were a Supreme Court Justice, how would you respond to social scientific argumentation? Why might you welcome it? What concerns might you have about it?

2. The brief pointed out that segregation had a powerful impact on the personalities of both minority and majority group children. How were children in each group effected? Why do you think the Brown decision concentrated exclusively on the difference that segregation made for African-American children? Why did it fail to mention the impact of segregation on white children?

3.Years after Brown, studies showed that the self-image of African-American schoolchildren in Northern schools was no better (and may actually have been worse) than that of African-American schoolchildren in the South. Does this finding undermine the logic of Brown? Why or why not?

4.The brief concludes that even if identical facilities and funding were provided for black and white children in separate schools, equality would not be possible. Why not?

5.Why did the authors point out that desegregation in the armed services had taken place “without major incidents” (p. 149)?

Brown v. Board of Education
1.After an initial round of arguments in 1952, the Supreme Court requested reargument on the question of what the architects of the 14th Amendment intended when they adopted it in 1868. Why do you think they wanted to know more about this? Why, in the end, did the Supreme Court conclude that “it is not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced” (p. 170)?

2. The opinion explains why it matters that the legal challenge to segregation occurred in the sphere of education. Why did it matter? Do you think the Supreme Court would have responded differently to a lawsuit involving public accommodations or public transportation in 1954?

3. The Loving decision in 1967 declared that state laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage were unconstitutional. Why do you think the civil rights revolution came so much later to marriage than to school? Do you think that the members of the Supreme Court worried at all in 1954 about what their decision about schools might mean for family life? Do you think they have anything to do with each other?

4.Brown concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (p. 174). What evidence does the opinion cite as the basis for such a claim?

Ruling on Relief
1. Why did the Supreme Court send the cases back to lower courts and charge them with overseeing the implementation of school desegregation?

2. What do you think the Supreme Court had in mind when it ordered school integration to proceed “with all deliberate speed” ( p. 198)? What do you think might have happened if the Supreme Court had set a specific target date instead? Was the Ruling on Relief an act of sensible diplomacy on the part of the Court, or an evasion of responsibility?

Lillian Smith letter
1.Lillian Smith was a well-known white Southern liberal. Why did she greet Brown as “the most powerful political instrument against communism that the United States has as yet devised” (p. 208)?

2. Why did she suggest that Brown was a landmark ruling for all children, and not only African-American children? What other children did she believe would benefit? Can you think of others?

Zora Neale Hurston letter
1. Why does Hurston believe that self-respect was sacrificed by Brown and that the decision insulted rather than honored African Americans?

2. Why was Hurston so skeptical about integration as a civil rights goal?

3. What does she mean by the doctrine of the white mare?

4. Hurston hypothesizes that Brown was a trial balloon. For what?

5. “It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association” (p. 212). Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

The Southern Manifesto
1. The signers condemned Brown as “a clear abuse of judicial power” (p. 220). What did they mean by this? Why did they believe the decision was unconstitutional?

2. Why are separate but equal schools consistent with “elementary humanity and commonsense” (p. 221), according to the authors? Why do they blame Brown for usurping the basic rights of parents? Do you agree that parents’ rights were violated? Are there times when courts are entitled to limit parental power? Was this one of them?

3. This document predicted that Brown would create dangerous new racial hatreds and animosities. Did it? Do you think the possibility of racial tension and violence was something the Supreme Court considered?

4. The significance of “rights reserved to the States” (p. 221) is central to the critique of Brown articulated in this document. What do you think of the argument that school integration was imposed on the South by “outside meddlers” and troublemakers who bypassed the consent of the governed?

5. The Manifesto pledges to “resist forced integration by any lawful means” (p. 221). It this similar to the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience employed by civil rights movement? Why or why not?

“Forty Years and Still Struggling”
1. Why did the New York Times declare the 40th anniversary of Brown “an occasion both for national pride and national shame” (p. 228)?

1. Does the history of Brown suggest that the post-WWII civil rights movement was a success? A failure? A little of both? What kind of evidence do you think is most persuasive in assessing the legacy of Brown?

2. Waldo Martin suggests that one problem with Brown’s legacy is that no national consensus existed about the sort of integrated society that would sustain integrated schools. Do you agree? Do you think the Supreme Court could have done anything about this or not?

3. What is the difference between de jure and de facto segregation? Why do many activists believe that eradicating the first is not an adequate civil rights goal? How does the history of school desegregation illustrate their point?

4. Do you think racial integration in education can really work without racial integration in housing and employment? Do you think the Supreme Court has the same authority over housing and employment? Why or why not?

5. Waldo Martin suggests that the Supreme Court has, since 1970, represented a “white counterinsurgency” (p. 233). What does this mean? Do you think a significant number of white Americans wish to halt the progress of the civil rights movement?

6. Do you agree with Martin that questions of economic and social justice have been replaced on the national agenda in recent decades by the concerns of business? Why does this matter for the history of Brown?

7. What factors do you think will be most likely to shape patterns of educational integration and segregation in the future?