This book is more than a history of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. More importantly, it is a history of black America’s century-long struggle for equality under law. It is a story of human drama, of social forces of the past colliding with those of the present, of determined people who in the face of intimidation, threats, and fear, refused to accept defeat along the legal path to the Supreme Court and final showdown.
Richard Kluger is not a formally trained historian; he began this seven-year study as a novelist and editor. Yet his work reveals the scholarship, detailed research, thoroughness, and accuracy of the professional historian. His ability to blend history, law, sociology, and humanity in his book is superb.
Kluger divides his work into three parts. Part One offers a wide-ranging historical background describing how American blacks reached their position in a segregated society. Several hundred pages are spent chronologizing events from the Declaration of Independence, through Reconstruction, to Plessy v. Ferguson. Kluger has the courage to be obvious. From the beginning he argues that the Declaration of Independence was marred by hypocrisy—all men were not equal if black.
Kluger conducts an all-inclusive analysis of the events, strategy, and personnel involved in the five landmark cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education. Beginning with the Reverend Joseph Albert DeLaine, Kluger tells the story of unheralded heroes. DeLaine led the first crucial fight for educational equality in Clarendon County, South Carolina. He was subsequently fired from his position as a school teacher, threatened with bodily harm, sued, convicted, and driven out of the state, all because he sought equal protection of the law for his three children. It is in telling the story of the struggle for human dignity that Kluger is at his compassionate best.
From Clarendon County the author moves to Prince Edward County, Virginia; Topeka, Kansas; Wilmington, Delaware; and Washington, D.C., where he records the events and presents the plaintiffs who braved violence and reprisals to be heard in court. Kluger refuses to allow reader complacency; he makes the reader a participant. The collective biases, the unsavory attitudes of Americans are a major theme in this work.
Kluger is not satisfied with tracing the historical background to the Brown case; he feels that the court decision cannot be understood unless a reader is familiar with previous litigation. More than one hundred cases are presented in a progression of severely crucial desegregation lawsuits, among them the Brown case. In the process the reader is given a short course in Constitutional law with copious quotes from civil rights cases.
Here too is a glimpse of the early rise of a black middle class centered in a black legal establishment. Sprung from Howard University Law School were a group of black intellectuals who led, relentlessly, the cumulative advance of the law to the Supreme Court and the Brown decision. Commanded by Thurgood Marshall, the group included such excellent lawyers as William Hastie, Robert Carter, and James Nabrit. Kluger has detailed character sketches of these men and others, lawyers, judges, and plaintiffs, who played a part in defining the rights of blacks in the years preceding 1954.
Finally, Kluger documents Supreme Court hearings on the five cases of Brown v. Board of Education. He reexamines and re-creates the months of research and interpretation by both sides, the arguments before the Court, the series of meetings and legal negotiations culminating in the unanimous decision that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Kluger’s delineation of Chief...
(The entire section is 877 words.)