Segregation's American History

Panel Discussion of Racism Prior to Brown v. Board Celebrates Decision

By Jacob McKean
Spectator Staff Writer
February 25, 2004

A panel discussion yesterday marked the second event in a year-long series sponsored by Columbia Law School to commemorate the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. The panel of professors and lawyers discussed segregation and racism in the United States prior to the 1954 decision that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The panel included DeWitt Clinton Professor of History Eric Foner, University Provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History Alan Brinkley, and NAACP Legal Defense Fund Associate Director Counsel Theodore Shaw. The panel was moderated by Kendall Thomas, a School of Law professor and co-director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture.

The panelists discussed various events and circumstances that set the stage for the Brown v. Board decision. Foner started the panel off with a discussion of 19th century legal precedents and social conditions. He argued that the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1877--which gave African Americans citizenship and equal rights to public transportation and public facilities--marked a dramatic departure from previous governmental policy and U.S. philosophical creed.

"These measures represented a repudiation of American tradition before 1866, not a fulfillment of some sort of eminent logic in the Constitution. The idea of equal rights did not exist before [these laws were passed]. ... The widely held belief was that citizenship, rights, equal public access, and legal equality were for whites alone," Foner argued.

He went on to assert that Brown v. Board represented a victory over only one small part of a system that was pervasively racist. "In some ways, Brown can be faulted for extracting segregation from the total system of racial subordination," he said.

Foner also pointed out Columbia's own intellectual contributions in the past to a white supremacist view of history. He mentioned several books published by scholars in Columbia's political science department claiming that Reconstruction was a mistake because it gave African Americans the right to vote. Foner's landmark study of Reconstruction is a repudiation of this view.

Brinkley discussed segregation in the 20th century before 1954 and the factors that destabilized it. He argued that the massive Northern migration of African Americans during the two World Wars, the expansion of educational opportunities for African Americans, the creation of a black middle class, and the heightened hopes and expectations of African American veterans and their communities all laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Brinkley noted that World War II held special significance for African Americans because of the hope that it would be a "double victory": a victory over fascism abroad and a victory over racism and segregation in the United States. "Those hopes were dashed," he said, and that frustration helped give rise to a political movement for change.

He claimed that a major contribution to the civil rights movement was the "emergence of white liberals willing to envision change. ... A generation of white liberals ... began to ally themselves with African Americans to shake the foundation of white supremacy," he said. He went on to claim that this alliance's "greatest moment" was the Brown v. Board decision.

Shaw discussed the issue of racism and segregation outside of the south in the years before Brown. He said that a multitude of issues, including the legally mandated segregation of public housing, restrictive covenant practices, suburbanization, racist lending practices, and anti-integration violence, all contributed to segregation in the north.

"Segregation is not fortuitous, it is the consequence of decades and decades of policy on the state, local, and federal levels," Shaw said.

Shaw went on to detail some of the efforts made by school boards around the country to manipulate attendance zones and other factors to ensure school segregation. "Clearly housing segregation causes school segregation, school segregation causes housing segregation; the two are mutually reinforcing," he said.

During the question-and-answer session, Shaw responded to the argument made by Brinkley about the contributions to the civil rights movement made by white liberals. "While the civil rights movement was interracial, the movement sprang from black resistance and protest. ... Even from its inception, the civil rights movement was never led by white people," he said.

[From Spectator]


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