High School Students: Equal Protection
Can a Legal Decision Bring About Rapid Social Change?
This strategy focuses on the resistance to the Brown decision, the Court's later decision that desegregation proceed "with all deliberate speed," and the situation in schools now.
Make a class set of the following:
The Brown decision didn't specify how quickly desegregation was to be achieved in the thousands of segregated school systems. The case was reargued on this question, and in 1955 the Court issued an opinion, commonly referred to as Brown II.
"The NAACP urged desegregation to proceed immediately, or at least within firm deadlines. The states claimed both were impracticable. The Court, fearful of hostility or even violence if the NAACP views were adopted, embraced a view close to that of the states…. [e]ssentially return[ing] the problem to the courts where the cases began for appropriate desegregative relief—with … "all deliberate speed.". . . By 1964, a decade after the first decision, less than 2 percent of formerly segregated school districts had experienced any desegregation."'
—Dennis J. Hutchinson, Brown v. Board of Education, in the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States
Pass the reading out to the class and then explore the following questions.
1. Reaction to the first Brown decision was fierce in the Southern states, with newspaper editorials predicting violence and political leaders promising defiance. How do you think the Court's ruling for desegregation with "all deliberate speed" should have been interpreted? Do you think it gave too much deference to white resistance in the South? What do you think the result would have been had the Court demanded immediate desegregation? What would you have done as a justice in the same situation?
2. What can the Supreme Court do to enforce its decisions? What is the role of the other branches in enforcing Court decisions? What can the Court do without the full support of the other branches?
3. Why were schools the focus of the litigation that led to Brown v. Board? Is it more important for schools to be diverse and desegregated than the rest of society?
4. Schools that once were segregated by law have tended to "resegregate" as a result of housing patterns and other circumstances. Is the "voluntary" resegregation in our nation's schools harmful? In terms of effect on students, is there a difference between legally mandated segregation and segregation due to other factors? Should national, state, or local governments try to do something about this issue? If so, what can be done?
For the original version of this lesson, see Dialogue on Brown v. Board of Education (.pdf)
The National Archives and Records Administration has documents that include the dissenting opinion in one of the lower-court cases, a letter from President Eisenhower on a related legal case, and the Court's decision in Brown. Included in the activity is a document Analysis Worksheet.
This PBS site is a good brief introduction to the case.
The U. S. Department of State, International Information Programs has key excerpts from the Court's Opinion and recommendations for further reading. In addition, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site and the Street Law Site ( Landmark Cases) are useful for this grade level as well.
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