Because it has been twenty-five years since the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren declared Southern segregation in public schools illegal, there is a definite need for a retrospective analysis of the legal history of desegregation and its social and political repercussions. From Brown to Bakke is such an analysis. With a genuine dispassion that does not shun the complex truth, J. Harvie Wilkinson III outlines the legal history of segregation that preceded Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as well as the efforts to further desegregation that followed that momentous decision. To anyone who has lived through the confusion of the last twenty-five years of social strife and legal striving, Wilkinson’s book will come as a welcome gift of clarity and insight.
Many times, as Wilkinson makes clear, the future legal history of the Supreme Court can be read in the dissents of its past justices and the arguments of its losing counsel. In his 1883 dissent in the Civil Rights Cases Justice Harlan had said of the fourteenth amendment: “there cannot be, in this republic, any class of human beings in practical subjection to another class, with power in the latter to dole out to the former just such privileges as they may choose to grant. . . .” In the more famous Plessy v. Ferguson, Plessy’s counsel made the point that the doctrine of separate but equal made no sense. In other words, separate was inherently not equal, although it took the Supreme Court over a half century to strike at the segregated society over whose erection it had so benignly presided.
Although Brown was important, it was deliberately bland and was furthermore peculiar in its implicit contention that the public school, and education generally, could be both the vehicle to strike down segregation and the certain avenue for betterment for the black race. Bland or not, Brown was defied. When the Court ordered the South to proceed “with all deliberate speed,” Southerners held back stubbornly. First there was the absolute defiance of such demagogues as Governor Orval Faubus in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then the South learned to substitute foot-dragging for fireworks. The Court has been much criticized for a formula that became an excuse for tokenism. Wilkinson points out, however, that Southern segregation was probably too entrenched for...
(The entire section is 990 words.)