The Scholar-Activists of Brown
Scholars reflect on the intellectual contributions to the historic desegregation case
When asked by Thurgood Marshall during the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case to join a team of scholars to answer questions posed by the U.S. Supreme Court about the intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, Dr. John Hope Franklin didn’t hesitate to accept.
“These searching and quite difficult questions sent legal counsel scurrying not to the history books but to the historians … It was the historians who went scurrying to the sources, to read the minutes of the 1865-66 Joint Committee on Reconstruction, the debates in Congress and in the legislatures that ratified the 14th Amendment, the private correspondence of key figures of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and to survey public reaction and response to the events in Washington and the several states,” according to Franklin.
For Franklin, commuting from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he had a faculty position to an NAACP office in New York City each weekend during the fall of 1953 and coordinating research on the 14th Amendment history provided one of the great highlights of his career as a historian. The crux of the Brown case was whether or not the separate-but-equal doctrine, which Whites used to justify segregated public facilities and schooling, was legal under the 14th Amendment, the constitutional amendment ratified in 1868 to guarantee equal protection of U.S. citizens.
“I’ve always felt it was a very important period in my life. I was surrounded by lawyers. I’m not claiming I was a principal figure in that operation, but they did show deference to me when I got to talk to them,” he has said.
Franklin is not alone among Black scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries whose academic careers have embraced activism, much of it waged in the Black struggle for social and political equality in the United States. The scholar-activist model among Black intellectuals represents an established tradition that harks back to W.E.B. Du Bois and his 19th-century contemporaries. And nowhere does the African American scholar-activist model emerge more definitively and decisively than during the decades-long legal campaign for school desegregation that culminated in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In addition, Blacks having White intellectual allies proved pivotal to the struggle and signaled the transition White intellectuals were making in rejecting pseudo-scientific theories of White racial superiority.
“Basically the intelligentsia of mid-20th century America, effectively supporting Brown, brought their prestige and intellect to bear… The fact that this interracial group of scholars, Kenneth Clark, John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward (had come together) was something quite noteworthy,” says Leland Ware, the Louis L. Redding professor of law and public policy at the University of Delaware.
At the helm of the school desegregation campaign, Charles Hamilton Houston, a former dean of the Howard University law school, reigns as a pre-eminent African American scholar-activist as well as the architect of the legal strategy that would ultimately prevail in Brown. “The campaign was a product of an organized strategy. The strategy was developed in the early 1930s by Charles Houston. The blueprint was laid out and it was followed. It wasn’t a happenstance or accidental thing,” says Ware, who co-authored the book Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture and the Constitution.
Though Houston died in 1950, his former student and protégé Thurgood Marshall would lead the campaign to victory, enlisting along the way the help of America’s most talented Black intellectuals as well as prominent White allies. In addition to historians, sociologists and law professors examining constitutional history under Marshall’s direction, the legal fight for school desegregation relied heavily upon the psychological research of Dr. Kenneth Clark, then a professor at City College of New York, whose studies on Black students’ self-esteem under segregation would be cited as highly influential.
Historical accounts paint a dramatic picture of the months between June and December 1953 when dozens of scholars, both Black and White, poured into New York City and worked around the clock at a NAACP office to produce a legal brief on whether the 14th Amendment was adopted to prohibit segregation or permit separate facilities. From locations across the nation, researchers also conducted studies in state and local archives and sent their findings to New York.
“The case was first argued in 1952, and the court didn’t decide the case and issued an order directing the parties to brief the legislative history of the 14th Amendment, and also some questions relating to how any final decree might be shaped and how it might be implemented,” Ware explains.
In Simple Justice, an authoritative account of the Brown campaign, author Richard Kluger recounts that by September 1953, “the research was flowing into the NAACP office from all over the nation, and the director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, as Marshall was now known, studied most of it himself before channeling it to other hands. The mimeograph machine was going all the time, churning out a cross-flurry of monographs, memos and rough drafts.”
“I was delighted to have been part of the research team,” Franklin says. “Constitutional law was my specialty. My father was a lawyer.”
Though a participant in the 14th Amendment research project in 1953 as well as civil rights protests in the 1960s, Franklin has written about the need for scholars to have a balance between academics and their social activism. “There is a place for advocacy, so long as the Negro scholar understands the difference. Recognizing the importance of the use of objective data in the passionate advocacy of the rectification of injustice, the Negro can assume this additional role for his own sake and for the sake of the community,” wrote Franklin in the essay “The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar.”
Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, the director of the African American studies program at the University of Alabama, recently presented a paper that assesses the portrayal of African American scholars involved in the Brown desegregation case. In his paper, “Brown and the Meaning of History: Scholarly Activism for Justice and Advocacy for Change in Critical Perspective,” Shabazz takes issue with the contrasting portraits in Kluger’s Simple Justice between Black and White scholars.
“Kluger goes on to present how Woodward, Franklin and other scholars each responded to the NAACP’s call to action. (C. Vann) Woodward and Alfred H. Kelly, whom Kluger describes as ‘the tall, blond, blue-eyed, 46-year-old chairman of the history department at Detroit’s Wayne University,’ were determined not to let the humanitarian aims of the project prostitute (their) standards as historian(s),'” according to Shabazz. In contrast, “Franklin, like (John A.) Davis, (Horace Mann) Bond and Bob Ming … apparently had little to no qualms about whoring their professional standards if it could help liberate from Jim Crow racial oppression,” Shabazz describes as Kluger’s view.
Shabazz contends that it’s critical in writing and teaching about Brown that writers and historians educate audiences about the complexities of the African American scholars and advocates who participated in the campaign for school desegregation. He criticizes the Kluger account of the Black scholars because he says it fails to present a full dimension of their accomplishments and integrity as scholars.
“Kluger sets up the real heroes as C. Vann Woodward and Alfred Kelly, who are therefore able to be detached in their research as they work on the Brown legal brief,” Shabazz says.
THE DECISIVE FACTOR
Whether or not the Black historians and scholars had their professional integrity questioned over researching the 14th Amendment has been overshadowed by questions of how effective the work proved to the outcome of Brown. Here, the record is ambiguous at best.
“I don’t know if they were simply buying time, or they really believed the legislative history would help them,” says Franklin, speculating about the intent behind the justices’ request for the legal brief on the 14th Amendment.
In his writings, Franklin has taken a somewhat positive position on the impact of the historical research in Brown. “It is not possible, of course, to assess the influence of the historians’ findings on the court’s decision to outlaw segregation in the public schools … But the court had asked questions that only historians could answer; and deciding in favor of the plaintiffs, the court also decided in favor of the historians,” according to Franklin in his essay, “The Historian and the Public Policy.”
Dr. Peter Wallenstein, a history professor at Virginia Tech, concludes that although the “evidence was inconclusive” as to the intent of 14th Amendment on school segregation he says the historians’ “role was very important.”
“What they did was to give the court a sufficient understanding of the (framework) to rule as they did (in favor of Brown),” Wallenstein says.
Other analysts have taken a less charitable view of the influence of the 14th Amendment historical research.
“I think that it was sort of a wild goose chase. I think that there was a division within the court over Brown, and possibly a majority against but certainly not a unanimous opinion. I think that Justice Frankfurter and others wanted to put it off for another term and so they asked for this information,” Ware says, adding that the “order reads very much like a law school exam … The research itself turned out to be, as the Brown opinion itself states, inconclusive. And they spent much work and much energy, and all kinds of distinguished historians worked through that December, but in the end I think it really meant very little to the outcome of Brown in 1954.”
There’s no doubt, however, that the findings by Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark from experiments that employed dolls to gauge ego and self esteem in young African American children played a decisive factor in the Brown decision. The unanimous ruling in Brown cites the Clark’s research as “modern authority” demonstrating that school segregation had a “detrimental effect” upon Black children.
“I believe, and some disagree, that the sociological, psychological expert testimony that went into both the trial and to the brief authored by Kenneth Clark and others about the impact of legally mandated segregation on the stigmatic and other kind of psychological injuries that segregation inflicted upon young Black children really swayed the court,” Ware says.
“The key was Kenneth Clark and the doll test. There were many psychologists who testified at several of the trials. All of those Brown cases; there were six Brown cases in five jurisdictions. They all had psychologists testifying about psychological injuries, and I think that was persuasive evidence,” he adds.
THE MESSAGE OF BROWN
In speeches commemorating the Brown decision, Ware emphasizes the realities of public education. “I talk about two different things. One, I talk about the fact that in urban areas schools are as segregated, or more segregated, than when Brown was decided … That is one thing I discuss is that we still have a long way to go,” he says.
On the other hand, “it was highly beneficial to the roughly two-thirds of the African American population who were in a position to benefit from it,” Ware adds.
“Brown was about far more than schools. The whole Martin Luther King Jr. phase of the civil rights movement would never have happened without Brown. Brown was the breakthrough,” he notes.
Looking back at the Supreme Court ruling after 50 years, Franklin takes small comfort in the fact that it came down as a unanimous decision. “It was not enough to have had a majority ruling, the court had to stand together on an unanimous decision,” he says.
A simple majority in Brown would have meant far more “resistance” to school desegregation efforts, which were met with considerable resistance despite a unanimous verdict by the court, according to the Duke University-based historian.
“I’m disappointed in the American people. We’re going in the wrong direction. Schools are not desegregated to the extent that they should be,” Franklin says about the evidence that school districts are becoming more segregated than in the past.
At 89 years of age, Franklin, however, doesn’t allow his disappointment in the post-Brown environment to diminish his willingness to speak out about social inequities and to continue his work in the scholar-activist tradition he has long embraced.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com