"Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs . . . are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."
-- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
WITH THESE WORDS 50 years ago today, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down segregated public education. The half-century that has followed has wrought such profound changes in America that these words perhaps no longer pack quite the emotional, legal and philosophical punch they once delivered. Segregation is unthinkable to most Americans. And partly as a consequence of the nearly universal acceptance of the decision, once violently controversial, it has become fashionable to dwell on Brown's inadequacies: Its repudiation of the "separate but equal doctrine" was too long in coming. Its promise of integrated public education has faded as resegregation has emerged, the result of economics and racially divided neighborhoods this time, not legal compulsion. Law scholars often note that the most important decision of the 20th century is not a stirring piece of writing or legal argumentation. All of this is true. Yet it all sells Brown short.
The case was a pivotal event in dismantling state-sponsored white supremacy in America. Its rejection of racial segregation, while confined to education, could not be limited to the educational sphere for long. The decision represented an emphatic insistence that the Constitution's promise of "equal protection" meant what it said and that the federal courts would ensure that promise was kept. This insistence opened avenues for legal challenges far beyond public education. It helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement and established the moral and constitutional framework against which the great civil and voting rights legislation of the 1960s was passed.
Brown's work is indeed incomplete: America is not the colorblind society to which the 14th Amendment aspires. But it is immeasurably closer to that goal as a result of Brown. No longer do Americans have to petition the federal courts, as did the plaintiffs 50 years ago, to prevent states from denying the most basic racial equality under law. No longer does any group of people, on account of their race, have to seek from the courts what the Brown briefs movingly called "the most important secular claims that can be put forward by children, the claim to their full measure of the chance to learn and grow, and the inseparably connected but even more important claim to be treated as entire citizens of the society into which they have been born." Racism still haunts America. But Brown renewed the process, begun after the Civil War, of expunging it from the fabric of American life and law.