Relearning Brown: Applying the Lessons of Brown to the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century


Graduation Day at Yale University in late May of 2002 was blessed with warm, clear weather. It is the hope for such a beautiful morning that enables outdoor commencements to survive the rain-soaked disappointment of those hopes on far too many better-forgotten occasions. Yale’s Old Campus was filled with faculty, administrators, soon-to-be graduates, and their well-dressed families and friends. Under the canopy-covered stage, there were ten individuals of significance whose achievements had led to their being designated to receive honorary degrees. I was there at the invitation of one of those honorees, Robert L. Carter, my mentor and friend for more than forty years. Then eighty-five, a senior judge on the federal district court with thirty years of service, Carter had previously enjoyed a long and distinguished career as an NAACP civil rights attorney and for a few years as a partner in a large law firm. All of these accomplishments are worthy of praise and the warm applause that other candidates received. When, though, Yale University President Richard Levin announced that Judge Carter was an important member of the legal team that planned the strategies and argued the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, noting that the decision was only two years short of its fiftieth anniversary, the audience leaped to its feet and with great enthusiasm applauded and cheered. On that happy day, Judge Carter was the recipient of the audience’s appreciation for his work in helping litigate a case in which the Supreme Court had held unconstitutional racial segregation in the public schools. The mainly white audience assembled for the commencement exercises at one of the Nation’s premier universities was not unsophisticated. For them-and so many others regardless or status or race-Brown v. Board of Education evokes awe and respect. If asked, most would agree that the decision was the finest hour of American law. In their view, this long-awaited and now much-appreciated decision had erased the contradiction between the freedom and justice for all that America proclaimed, and the subordination by race permitted by our highest law. Even as I stood and joined in the applause, I wondered. How could a decision that promised so much and, by its terms, accomplished so little, have gained so hallowed a place among some of the Nation’s better-educated and most successful individuals that its mere mention in connection with one of its lawyer-advocates sparked a contained-but very real–demonstration?

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