Reading and Discussion Questions
Waldo E. Martin, Jr., ed., Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History
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
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?
"The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences
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
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
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.
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
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
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?