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To what extent did brown v.board of education of topeka pave the way for the civil rights movement of 1960s?

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Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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To what extent did Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka pave the way for the civil rights movement of 1960s?


The United States Supreme Court commands no armies, create no laws, and, generally, has no affiliations with the politics. However, its written opinions often change the course of American History. On May 17th, 1954 , the United States Supreme Court made the unanimous decision on the case Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, that declared segregation of white and Negro children in public schools denies Negro children the equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution – even though physical facilities and other “tangible” factors of white and Negro schools may be equal.

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One widely accepted claim is that the ruling of Brown played an important role in deeply influencing the civil rights movement. For blacks, the ruling of Brown had an ensuring effect that the “federal government is on our side”.Julius Chambers’s teenage memories of Brown is a reflection of this; “we assumed that Brown was self-executing. The law had been announced, and people would have to obey it. Wasn’t that how things worked in America, even in white America?”.A federal judge and a leading legal scholar, J. Harvie Wilkinson III, declared that “Very little could have been accomplished in mid-century America without the Supreme Court…Brown maybe the most important political, social and legal event in America’s twentieth century history”.Many scholars, like Wilkinson, agree that the decision made by the Supreme Court – and other court cases such as Brown II, Sarah Key v. Carolina Coach Company, and Browder v. Gayle that followed Brown – dramatically improved the legal status of Americans by deeply influencing the civil rights movement.It is evident that the Supreme Court decision on Brown had a deep symbolic impact on people. However, many other forces – perhaps much more powerful than Brown – also contributed to the paving of civil rights movement.

The United States having helped in the defeat of Adolf Hitler – a European leader who had practiced antisemitism, and persecuted many people who he believed were inferior to his “German master race” –  left many Americans repulsed by his racial policies This was a major cause for Americans to look at their own society with a critical lens. Shortly after the ruling of Brown, the civil rights movement gained considerable momentum.Demonstrations such as the sit-ins of Greensboro, North Carolina and the bus boycott of Montgomery, Alabama are a reflection of the quickened civil rights movement. Michael Klarman, a constitutional law scholar, argued that “political, economic, social, demographic, and intellectual forces” in the 1940s  and 1950s were already liberalizing race relations in the United States, even in the South. These changes  “would have undermined Jim Crow – perhaps with less white bitterness – regardless of Supreme Court intervention”.Forces mentioned above had already increased optimism in the society, prior to the decision of Brown, causing racial beliefs to slowly decline.

It is acceptable to claim that Brown played a role in paving the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The decision of Brown brought attention to civil rights causes, caused guilt to Northern whites, and inspired many grassroots activists. However many other powerful social and economical forces outweighed the small role Brown played in paving the path for the civil rights movement.

1. What was the role Brown played in the civil rights movement of 1960s?

1.1 Direct and indirect influences of Brown

The influences Brown had on the civil rights movement can be distinguished into two categories; direct influences and indirect influences. Its direct impact on the civil rights movement was school desegregation. Indirect influences, as claimed by many scholars, were varied. These included, giving civil rights issues national attention to Northern whites feeling guilt and to inspiring many grassroots and other activists by legitimizing civil rights causes. When one looks at the influences of Brown to the civil rights movement, the claim seems invalid. The influences, both direct and indirect, were over shadowed by other forces.

The decision of Brown had a fairly immediate effect on segregation in the border states and isolated portions of the peripheral South.] In Kentucky the percentage of black children attending the same school as white children increased from zero (at the time of the first Brown decision in 1954) to 28 percent in 1957-1958 and jumped to 54 percent in 1963-1964.In Oklahoma, the figures were zero percent in 1954, 18 percent in 1957-1958, and 28 percent in 1963-1964.In 1957-1958 0.09 percent of black children attending school with white children in Arkansas and 1.4 percent in Texas (the small net yield was due to small black populations).owever, statistics from the rest of the South indicates that Brown had very little immediate effect on school desegregation. For example, in Southern states such as Tennessee and North Carolina, blacks school children attending desegregated schools were 0.12 percent and 0.01 percent in 1959-1960, and 2.7 percent 0.54 percent in 1963-1964.In the deeper Southern states such as South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, black students did not attend an integrated public grade school in 1962-1963.In the South as a whole, only 0.16 percent of black children were attending school with white children in 1959-1960 and this increased only slightly to 1.2 percent in 1963-1964.Only in the later parts of 1960s, after the civil rights act of 1964, did desegregation in the south began to increase.From these statistics it is apparent that there was little impact from Brown on school desegregation. Only a 1.04 percent increase in blacks and whites attending the same school was seen in four years. Considering that direct influences of Brown being very limited, it is difficult for one to accept that indirect influences of Brown played a significant role.   

Claimed by many scholars, Brown had brought issues of civil rights to a national audience. However, this was only true to a certain extent. Although Brown had increased attention to civil rights causes in the South, it gained less attention in the North. An opinion poll conducted in the summer of 1955 noted that 60 percent of Southern whites, as opposed to 17 percent of northern whites, had discussed the Supreme Court decision during the week before the decision was made.33 percent of Southern whites, compared to six percent of Northern whites, in the same poll considered segregation a more important issue than crime, atomic bombs, and high taxes.Media coverage of civil rights events suggests that very little attention was paid to court cases such as Brown. Other civil rights event that produced confrontation and violence were the highlight of civil rights media coverage.  Examples include the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, which had little connection with Brown’sdecision and sit-ins of Greensboro, Alabama.In 1952 the New York Times gave relatively more coverage to civil rights issues than in 1954 or 1955 (the years of the first and second Brown decisions).Respondents identifying civil rights issues as the nation’s ultimate problem increased after the bus boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, not by Brown. This increase was insignificant compared to the outburst of public attention to civil rights causes after the demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama during the spring of 1963.It is evident that Brown did not gain considerable attention from both Northern and Southern states. It seems that significant attention to civil rights causes were brought by demonstrations such as sit-ins of Greensboro and Montgomery bus boycotts, not by Brown. At the time television sets were first appearing in households. Violent images such as protesters being hit by high-pressure water jets from fire-hoses were broad casted over the air.This would have likely gained more international support than court cases such as Brown published in newspapers.

Another widely accepted claim is that Brown aroused sympathy of Northern whites regarding the cause of civil rights. However, there is little evidence suggesting that Brown was a causation for Northern whites to feel sympathetic to the civil rights causes.An opinion poll conducted in July of 1959 reported that only a five percent increase in public support for school desegregation, that Brown promoted, over the preceding five years was seen.Congresses willingness to sponsor legislation can be seen as Northern whites feeling sympathetic to civil rights causes. Amount of congressional sponsors for civil rights causes steadily increased through the late 1940s and peaked in 1951-1952. Then it declined through the remainder of the 1950s and reached an all time low in 1959-1960.  Another indication that there was no significant increase of civil rights consciousness among Northern whites was the willingness of the President and the Senate to see the Eisenhower administration’s 1956-1957 civil rights bill deprive of strength in the upper house.Similarly, a study by Ema Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana state Legislature proceedings revealed that the legislature discussed more civil rights  issues during the 1950s than in the 1940s. But it did not enact meaningful legislation until after the civil rights revolution of the early 1960s.]

One of the most popular and widely accepted assumptions regarding Brown’s decision was that it legitimized the civil rights causes, increased the hope of its success, and was a catalyst for “new activism within the black community”.Activists in the civil rights movement has given many accounts of Brown’s significance. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared in 1958 that Brown had “brought hope to millions of disinherited Negroes who had formerly dared only dream of freedom.”.Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the indigenous civil rights movement in Birmingham, notes his role in the movement to Brown. Brown’s decision, as he remembered, “stirred up in me what I knew all the time”.As Thurgoood Marshall found more people in the South willing to stand up as plaintiffs, they said  “The federal government is on our side”.Around sixty desegregation petitions filed by local branches of The National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to school boards in the deep South in July of 1955.This suggest that Brown inspired litigation that challenged state sponsored segregation. Shortly after Brown, in Greensboro, North Carolina, blacks began to desegregate the city golf courses. Also, blacks in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, began to challenge segregation in city parks and public transportation by bringing court suits.Not only did Brown assure people the legitimization of civil rights causes, it also “stimulated black hope”.As Robert Jackson, a black history professor at Virginia Union University, notes “This is a most exciting moment. I haven’t seen collective emotion since the day Roosevelt died. A lot of us haven’t been breathing for the last nine months. But today the students reacted as if a heavy burden had been lifted from their shoulders. They see a new world opening for them and those that follow them”.One staff member of the NAACP branch in New York recalled that they “sat there looking at one another. The only emotion that we felt at that moment was awe-every one of us felt it”.Black leaders were hopeful that Brown would affect race relation in all dimensions of American life.Charles Johnson, the President of Fisk University, explained in the summer of 1954, “the principal enumeration was not merely that of constitutionality of racial segregation…if segregation is unconstitutional in educational institutions, it is no less unconstitutional in other aspects of our national lives.”.Martin Luther King, Jr., and A. Philip Randolph led prayer pilgrimage to Washington D.C., on the anniversary of Brown in the late 1950s, thus proving that blacks regarded Brown as an important symbol.It is impossible to measure the legitimizing effect Brown had on the society. Because of this it is difficult for one to either accept or reject the interpretation. However it is not clear that Brown’s decision was needed for the legitimization effect on the society. Other forces seem much more likely to have caused this legitimizing effect in the society.

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When assessing the impact of Brown, both direct and indirect, on the civil rights movement, one can conclude the little significance of Brown. Brown’s limited impact on school desegregation is widely accepted. However, its indirect contributions such as bringing civil rights issues national attention, causing guilt to Northern whites, and legalizing civil rights causes in the eyes of blacks seems  exaggerated. As evidence shows, Brown only brought significant attention to civil rights causes in the South. National attention brought by other civil rights demonstrations such as the famous Montgomery bus boycott and electrifying sit-ins of Greensboro dwarfed that of Brown. The decision of Brown did not arouse significant guilt from the northern whites. As mentioned earlier, only a five percentage increase in public support for civil rights causes were seen after the decision of Brown. It is difficult to either accept or reject the claim of Brown legitimizing civil rights causes in the eyes of blacks. However  more plausible factors such as political, economical, and social, that were in effect even before Brown, are much more likely to have effected the view of legitimized civil rights causes and essentially paving the way for the civil rights movement.

2. Postwar forces had relatively large effect on the civil rights movement

Shortly after the decision made by the United States Supreme Court, the civil rights movement gained considerable momentum. Key to the quickened civil rights movement was ongoing postwar forces such as rising prosperity, high levels of education, and demographic movements.These forces combined promoted expectations from both blacks and whites concerning ways of life including race relations.When the effect of  these forces are compared with Brown’s influence on the civil rights movement, it is evident that influence of Brown is exaggerated.

Michael Klarman claim that the “democratic ideology of World War II and the greater opportunities for political and economical advance that the war afforded had already fostered a civil rights consciousness in most American blacks”.This is reflected by the comment of a black veteran returning home from the war as he registered to vote:“After having been overseas fighting for democracy, I thought that when we got back here we should enjoy a little of it”.It is evident that there were many effective challenges to civil rights before and during the war. In 1942 blacks in North Carolina issued the Southern Black Declaration of Independence.This supported the Fair Employment Practice Committee and initiated actions to put an end to segregation, and inequalities in housing, medicine, and education.Also during the war blacks, in Norfolk, Virginia, began to protest segregation in public transportation. They began to join voter leagues, started to pay taxes in record numbers, and served on war-related boards and councils. Thus increasing black presence in the community they were able to successfully support the appointment of two black police officers into the city police force.In the 1940s number of black voters increased from 151,000 to 9000,000.By the late 1940s, black candidates were running for public office and occasional winning. In Northern sates, ideology of the war combined with increasing political power of urban blacks, led to the implementation of civil rights laws in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Most of these laws promoted fail employment practices and open public accommodations, and some went far as forbidding segregation in public schools.The challenges to Jim Crow that existed prior to war and during was beginning to bear results. There were desegregation of the Montgomery police force, elevators of buildings in Birmingham, juries in Little Rock, department stores and public facilities in Greensboro, public libraries, parks, and swimming pools in Louisville. All in the early 1950s before Brown.  

Rapidly increasing challenges to Jim Crow such as these during and after the war suggests that Brown was not the first to challenge racial beliefs in the society. Much of the legitimization of civil rights causes, that was perceived as an indirect action of Brown, can be explained through these things mentioned above. Political, economic, and social factors that caused these overall laid much of the groundworks for the civil rights movement.


After more than five decades it is still difficult to determine the exact role Brown played in paving the way for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Many scholars claim that indirect influences of Brown played a major role in laying groundworks for the civil rights movement. Other scholars claim that Brown itself was caused by many powerful postwar forces. Most scholars agree that there were three main indirect influences: Brown increased civil rights issues in a national context, caused the Northern whites to feel guilt, and legitimized civil rights issues in the eyes of grassroots activists. After examining the evidence surrounding these indirect influences it seems that they did not contribute much to laying groundworks for the civil rights movement. Evidence suggesting post war forces contributed to the civil rights movement is most plausible.

As to question of Brown’s role in paving the way for the civil rights movement, it is evident that Brown played a relatively small role compared to that of post war forces. Brown itself can be seen as a reflection of swelling postwar forces. These forces since the 1940s have increased optimism in the society and weakened racist beliefs. It is acceptable to claim that Brown did contribute to the civil rights movement. However Brown’s contributions were dwarfed by those of postwar forces.


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