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Brown v. Board of Education

Caste, Culture, and the Constitution

Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware

October 2003
304 pages, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1288-8, $25.00
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1289-5, $19.95

SELECTION OF THE HISTORY BOOK CLUB

book cover imageBefore 1954, both law and custom mandated strict racial segregation throughout much of the nation. That began to change with Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that overturned the pernicious “separate but equal” doctrine. In declaring that legally mandated school segregation was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court played a critical role in helping to dismantle America’s own version of apartheid, Jim Crow.

This new study of Brown—the title for a group of cases drawn from Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware, and the District of Columbia—offers an insightful and original overview designed expressly for students and general readers. It is concise, up-to-date, highly readable, and very teachable.

The authors, all recognized authorities on legal history and civil rights law, do an admirable job of examining the fight for legal equality in its broad cultural and historical context. They convincingly show that Brown cannot be understood apart from the history of caste and exclusion in American society. That history antedated the very founding of the country and was supported by the nation’s highest institutions, including the Supreme Court whose decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) supported the notion of “separate but equal.”

Their book traces the lengthy court litigations, highlighting the pivotal role of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and including incisive portraits of key players, including co-plaintiff Oliver Brown, newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, and Justice Felix Frankfurter, who recognized the crucial importance of a unanimous court decision and helped produce it. The authors simply but powerfully narrate their story and show that Brown not only changed the national equation of race and caste—it also changed our view of the Court’s role in American life.

As we prepare to commemorate the decision’s fiftieth anniversary in May 2004, this book invites readers to appreciate the lasting importance of what was indisputably a landmark case.

“A vivid and comprehensive account of the historical, legal, and political dramas surrounding one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the twentieth century. With humanity and wisdom, the authors defend the decision from some of its most influential critics and evaluate the forces that shaped it as well as those that it set into motion. Accessible and shrewd in its judgments, this will be one of the definitive accounts of the Brown decision for years to come.”--Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor of The New Republic and author of The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America

“Provides readers with a good overview of the most important decision by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century. The emphasis on culture as well as politics and law is particularly valuable.”--Mark Tushnet, author of Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961

ROBERT J. COTTROL is Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and professor of history and sociology at George Washington University. RAYMOND T. DIAMOND is C. J. Morrow Research Professor of Law and adjunct professor of African diaspora studies at Tulane University. LELAND B. WARE is the Louis L. Redding Professor for the Study of Law and Public Policy at the University of Delaware.

 

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