All Deliberate Speed: Brown’s place in history

I decided to dive into “All Deliberate Speed” by Charles Ogletree as the first off the list from the Sources and Topics post. Much of this may be familiar to readers, but here’s what I found most interesting in the “Significance of Brown” chapter:

  • The court’s decision was unanimous, a high priority for Earl Warren in his first case after taking over as Chief Justice following the death of Justice Vinson in September 1953.
  • The case could have easily gone against the plaintiffs – following the first round of oral arguments, the justices unofficially voted 5-4 in favor of the constitutional legitimacy of school segregation(!). The deciding vote was then-Chief Justice Vinson. (He died just after oral arguments.)
  • Led by Thurgood Marshall, NAACP lawyers made a very different and risky tactical decision. Instead of working within the “separate but equal” framework set by Plessy v. Ferguson (and pursuing “equalization”), they sought to overturn Plessy entirely.
  • Warren worked aggressively to get a unanimous decision, but, as Ogletree writes, it came “at a cost that would prove to be exceedingly high.”
  • That cost? The Brown II decision. Instead of ordering states to implement the ruling immediately, the court issued a second ruling stating that lower courts should enforce Brown with “all deliberate speed.”
  • The phrase “all deliberate speed” existed before Brown II, and its previous uses and derivations basically boil down to one simple translation: “slow.” Ogletree describes Brown II as “a palliative to those opposed to Brown’s directive.”

As Ogletree writes, Brown and Brown II represent opposing sides of a conflict that shapes school (de)segregation today: constitutional legitimacy vs. fear. Overturning Plessy led to an incredible run that reshaped American society as we know it, affecting everything from housing, employment and voting to public accommodations and leading to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But, of course, fear, racial animus and violence hover ominously over every conversation about school integration. These scenes are familiar to many: the rocks and hate hurled at the Little Rock Nine who were prevented by the Arkansas National Guard from entering their school or the black lawyer on his way to work in Boston attacked with the sharp end of an American flag.

Although schools themselves don’t respond to integration with the same level of violence, the resistance is perhaps just as strong as ever. Ogletree writes that “by the 1970s, opponents of Brown had begun creatively to avoid the impact of integration” often through white flight, cuts to school funding and subsequent Supreme Court cases. In a move that is hauntingly relevant for today’s ed policy debate, the Arkansas legislature issued a series of bills “to establish legal pretenses for closing desegregated schools and transferring the money to private, segregated schools.”

And, this is where there’s a breakdown for me – somewhere after the civil rights era scenes of violence, I fear that our understanding of the significance of Brown fades. I got my Masters and Ph.D. from a great program with a genuine commitment to education for social justice. Yet, in my coursework, Brown was mentioned rarely and, when it did come up, it felt like we were looking to a distant past. By contrast, there was much more attention to the A Nation At Risk report as a turning point in the history of education, when the country moved from funding/fairness policies to the current era of standards and accountability. In this transition, of course, is the embrace of neoliberal and privatized forms of education that claim to use standards, accountability and choice/competition to make education function more like private business.  

But, A Nation at Risk – and the policies that follow – look different when viewed in the shadow of Brown. Released in 1983, the report came just a short time before the statistical height of American school integration in 1988. Since then, schools have been resegregating. Of course, the connection between neoliberal policy and school segregation is a large question (and a topic for upcoming posts!), but, for now, for me, there’s a related question to be asked about how and why Brown has come to be seen as separate from this history.

7 thoughts on “All Deliberate Speed: Brown’s place in history

  1. Pingback: News Roundup: Week of 1.23.17 – School Desegregation Notebook

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  4. Pingback: All Deliberate Speed: Jim Crow Segregation | School Desegregation Notebook

  5. Pingback: What we lose when we lose track of Brown | School Desegregation Notebook

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