Brown v. Board of Education: A Fight for Simple Justice
By Susan Goldman Rubin
Buy on Amazon
By Brianna Westervelt
“The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education overturned their 1896 ‘separate but equal’ decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.” These are the facts that were drilled into my brain from middle school onward. A family in Topeka, Kansas, challenged segregation in their children’s school, leading to a 9-0 high court decision and the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow era.
Brown v. Board was, as the subtitle to Susan Goldman Rubin’s book notes, a case of “simple justice.” Yet the road there was anything but simple. First, you have to dial way back to the post-Civil War era to understand how a country that had just sacrificed so much blood and treasure to destroy slavery could allow such an elaborate system of racial segregation to take its place, both in the North and South. Segregation is one of those building blocks of U.S. history that gets short shrift in the schools. Much of what Rubin presents in the opening chapters of this book was news to me, and I suspect will be news to you as well.
LISTEN: Susan Goldman Rubin talks about Brown v. Board and her own not-so-simple road to writing historical books in our new Q Review Podcast
The heart of the narrative is the lengthy court case leading up to the arguments in Brown v. Board. I didn’t realize this until reading Rubin’s book, but the case the justices heard involved not just the school district in Kansas but others in Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. All these cases were bundled together by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s hard-charging attorney Thurgood Marshall in the hopes that Jim Crow and school segregation could be eradicated with one sweeping Supreme Court ruling.
Rubin makes a page-turner out of the arduous courtroom proceedings, which took upwards of three years. She also spends a generous amount of time explaining why Brown was not, and never could have been, the blow to end racial discrimination, though surely it was the beginning of the end. Rubin includes a timeline that spans from the establishment of Jim Crow laws name to Marshall’s retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the relevant primary sources: brief summaries of the court cases and the texts of the Fourteenth Amendment and the 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Rubin’s book should inspire you to visit the national park devoted to this legal case, the Brown v. Board National Historic Site in Topeka. It was created inside the all-black elementary school where the Brown daughters attended prior to the court’s historic ruling. It’s an outstanding museum that places the Brown decision in its proper historical context. But this book is an excellent substitute for a visit to Kansas. It is a fine resource for anyone finding the textbook explanation of this pivotal moment in U.S. history a bit … lacking.
Rubin talks about her new book on the Q Review Podcast.