Old-school: Looking back on the civil rights movement


On the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Columbia law professor Jack Greenberg is spearheading a series of panel discussions on the case, the events leading up to it, and what it means for the future. Greenberg, who was among the counsel for Brown, calls it “the predicate for the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Acts of the mid ’60s,” a ruling whose influence goes far beyond schools, both symbolically and practically (he cites Martin Luther King’s annual commemorative “prayer pilgrimages” and the successful Montgomery bus boycott, in which the Supreme Court used Brown as a precedent). But recent rulings, like Dowell v. Oklahoma City Board of Education (1991), reveal a disturbing trend in which the belief that desegregation has been satisfactorily achieved, viz., “plateaued,” is used to dissolve the laws that enforced it, to predictably regressive effect. A study headed by Gary Orfield of the Harvard Civil Rights Project reveals that the number of Southern black students in majority white schools has fallen from 44 percent in 1988 to 30 percent in 2001. It hasn’t been that bad since King was assassinated, which makes discussion all the more pressing. Panelists include law professor Kendall Thomas, historians Alan Brinkley and Eric Foner, Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund director Margaret Fung, and NAACP counsel Theodore M. Shaw. Future panels will address Brown‘s role in empowering rights groups today, the debate over the reasoning behind Chief Justice Earl Warren’s majority opinion, and more.