James C. Cobb: Liberals shouldn't learn the wrong lesson from Rosa Parks

Roundup: Talking About History

The recent flood of admiring farewell tributes to Rosa Parks offers a sharp contrast to the generally gloomy tone of last year's fiftieth anniversary assessments of the significance of Brown v. Board of Education. In keeping with the prevailing tendency throughout the academy to emphasize the agency of the masses, over the last decade or so, many historians have made grassroots activism in the face of local hostility and national indifference the overriding theme of their interpretations of the Civil Rights movement. At the same time, other scholars and legal experts have questioned the overall importance of the Supreme Court in helping either to inspire the crusade for racial equality or to secure its overall goals. Taken together, these trends seem almost to suggest a historical view of the Civil Rights movement as less a collective than a competitive enterprise--where the significance of the "bottom-up" initiatives of Parks and others is pitted against the "top-down" mandates of the Court.

This matter is of more than historical relevance. A week after Rosa Parks died, President Bush nominated conservative judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, further stoking an already heated debate about the Court's potential impact on the social and political battles of our own time. In recent years, many liberals, frustrated with the rightward tilt of both the high Court and the courts in general, have despaired of looking to the judiciary as either a vehicle or guardian of progressive reform. Instead, they emphasize grassroots organizational strategies aimed at generating the democratic pressures needed to promote their goals and preserve their gains. Such an approach is congruent with a reading of the Civil Rights movement that plays up the role of activists like Rosa Parks and plays down the role of Brown and other judicial mandates. Yet the key to a fuller historical understanding of the civil rights struggle lies not in what Parks and the Court accomplished separately--but rather in what each achieved with the support of the other.

In discounting the influence of the Brown decision, Gerald Rosenberg of the University of Chicago contends that the Warren Court was merely caught up in a historical current "but contributed little to it." World War II, he argues, had clearly exposed the blatant hypocrisy of sending American troops to fight illiberalism abroad while continuing to tolerate it at home; and as NAACP membership soared, black veterans returned home demanding an immediate end to racial discrimination. While some critics are reluctant to credit Brown for energizing the Civil Rights movement, others are not at all hesitant to effectively blame it for many of the movement's shortcomings, citing everything from voluntary resegregation to the destruction of neighborhood schools to the collapse of affirmative action as, in the words of Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, "current manifestations of Brown's failures." Once the disappointment and fears of the present have been read into a past where the Court has been reduced to an ineffective ally, it is easy enough to project them into a future where the judicial system looms as a permanent adversary. Hence, even as arch-conservatives such as Justice Antonin Scalia argue for scrapping judicial review, no less a liberal than Georgetown law professor (and occasional TNR Online contributor) Mark Tushnet has also suggested "taking the Constitution away from the courts" by making Congress responsible for the constitutionality of its own actions. To boost his case, Tushnet cites Brown as evidence that judicial action has not been all that effective in bringing about change "on behalf of those who lack political power."

As a historian, my first concern with these critical assessments is that they underestimate both the path-breaking legal implications and the emotionally galvanizing influence of Brown. If World War II weakened white southerners' attachments to Jim Crow, there was little indication of it in their outraged and occasionally violent responses to the Supreme Court's invalidation of the whites-only Democratic primary in 1944. Indeed, the familiar maxim that the Supreme Court follows election returns--or at the very least majority sentiment--did not apply when Brown came down in 1954. Two years earlier, neither party had exactly made civil rights a priority in its push for the White House; and enough Southern whites had felt so confident of GOP nominee Dwight Eisenhower's indifference to the issue that five southern states had fallen into Republican hands. Surveys also indicated at the time that only a negligible percentage of Americans thought race was the most serious national problem. In fact, the absence of anything resembling a groundswell of support in the North for strict and speedy enforcement of the Brown decree suggests that the Court actually had more assurance of a positive response from northern whites when it validated segregation in 1896 than when it struck it down in 1954. ...

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