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The thesis of Klarman’s Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Moment is that Brown v. Board of Education was a pivotal and massively important moment in American history—but not for the reasons that are typically given. The common understanding of Brown v. Board of Education is that it ended segregation in schools and helped make America a more equal place. Klarman views this is a very superficial approach to the subject, somewhat like a myth and one that needs to be dispelled. He begins by bringing up the dominant theme of the book—racism—which Klarman points out had remained “strong in the North in the years after the Civil War.”[footnoteRef:2] Racism was not just a regional issue; rather, it had been entrenched in American politics throughout the country and to a large degree it was institutionalized. The Jim Crow Era was proof of the institutionalization of racism and even at the Supreme Court level, the justices were sympathetic more towards “the white southerners, ‘who are to be coerced out of segregation,’ than with blacks, ‘who are coerced into it.’”[footnoteRef:3] The decision rendered in the court case was supported by the majority of the American public, polls showed.[footnoteRef:4] The Justices were not going against the grain of American sentiment or popular opinion by ending segregation in schools. However, they were concerned that they might be moving too far too fast. [2: Michael Klarman, Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Moment (Oxford University Press, 2007), 1898.] [3: Michael Klarman, Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Moment (Oxford University Press, 2007), 1876.] [4: Michael Klarman, Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Moment (Oxford University Press, 2007), 1890.]
Klarman’s point is that had they made this decision a decade earlier, there would have been more blowback from the public, more resistance. Though slavery had ended, segregation had still been a core feature of American society for nearly century following the Civil War. Desegregation was sure to lead to an upheaval, a destabilization of society as the status quo came crashing down—that was the main feeling throughout much of the first half of the 20th century. Was the nation ready for it? Were its leaders? Was there any stopping it? These are the questions and themes that run through Klarman’s book, showing that the epic push for validation and equality that stretched from through from the era of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement was like a long, slow rolling freight train that could not be stopped and that many leaders in America were scratching their heads over while doing everything they could to derail the train or prevent it from moving forward.
The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was an attempt by the justices to get out in front of the issue of segregation—but what they found was that by the time they got their the movement was already way out in front of them. By the 1950s, American society had altered so much in its attitudes towards race that segregation seemed more important only to a minority of people in the country than to the majority. World War II had helped to change attitudes. Americans had fought Germany, which was painted as a racist nation that wanted to promote a white Aryan race only and exterminate all other races.…
…as the Court tried to deal with the issues of segregation, racism, and how to transform a society at the most basic, fundamental level—the school system. Klarman’s book suggests, ultimately, that the case probably never should have been heard and that the Court was essentially behind the curve on this one. It stuck its fingers into something that it should have stayed out of and opened up a giant can of worms that probably would have worked itself out without interference from the Court. However, that is the argument made about slavery, too—that it would have ended on its own as technology advanced and slavery no longer became economically viable. These are speculative ideas and it is hard to judge them by looking back through time, saying what the better course might have been. The fact is that Klarman’s book is well-researched and supplies a great deal of insight into what the Justices were thinking when they wrote the decision. Klarman’s looks at the impact and shows what the results were, giving a great deal of information along the way. For a reference tool it is a great source, and Klarman uses a great many primary sources to support his point. The impact of Brown v. Board of Education on the Civil Rights Movement was not necessarily what many believe it to be. The Movement was a response in many ways to the Court getting the issue of race and segregation way too politicized. The country might have thus been better served had local government simply been allowed to govern as it saw fit. That may sound problematic, but the Court was making problematic decisions too that had negative repercussions, that confused many,…
Cripps, Thomas and and David Culbert. “The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White.” American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Special Issue: Film and American Studies (Winter, 1979), pp. 616-640: The Josh Hopkins University Press.
German, Kathleen M. Promises of Citizenship: Film Recruitment of African Americans in World War 2. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.
Klarman, Michael. Brown v Board of Education and the Civil Rights Moment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.