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Why Brown Had Such an Impact

Brown v. Board of Education is often identified as the most important Supreme Court decision of the twentieth century, but the precise way in which it mattered is not widely appreciated. Brown helped ensure that when sit-ins, freedom rides, and other civil rights demonstrations came to the South in the 1960s, they would be met with violence. And that fact proved an incomparable boon to the civil rights movement.

In the wake of Brown, politicians in Southern states vied for the title of most fervent segregationist. Racial moderates who denounced diehard resistance to Brown were labeled cowards and traitors.

Many southern politicians resorted to extremist rhetoric that all but endorsed violence. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi called Brown illegal and proclaimed that "resistance to tyranny is obedience to God." Congressman James Davis of Georgia called Brown "a monumental fraud." The people of the South, he declared, were not obligated to "bow the neck to this new form of tyranny."

The reactions of two Southern politicians in particular ensured that Brown would not be superfluous. T. Eugene ("Bull") Connor had been driven from the Birmingham, Alabama, political scene in the early 1950s because his racial extremism had undermined efforts to burnish the city's reputation. But after Brown , Birmingham's nascent racial progress ground to a halt, and in 1957 Connor regained his seat on the city commission, defeating an incumbent he attacked as weak on segregation. As the Ku Klux Klan bombed dozens of black homes and churches, the police, under Connor's control, declined to interfere. Standing for reelection in 1961, Connor offered the Klan fifteen minutes of "open season" on the Freedom Riders as they rolled into town. He won in a landslide.

In 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was searching for a Southern city with a police chief whose violent propensities would produce televised scenes of brutality that would shock the nation's conscience. Its leaders selected Birmingham because of Connor, and the strategy worked brilliantly: the police commissioner unleashed dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators, and the images carried by the national media repulsed the nation. President John F. Kennedy reported that they made him "sick." Newspaper editorials condemned the violence as "a national disgrace." Citizens voiced their "sense of unutterable outrage and shame" and demanded that politicians take immediate action.

These televised scenes of brutality worked a sea change in public opinion. Before Birmingham, only 4 percent of Americans deemed civil rights the nation’s most urgent issue; afterwards, 52 percent did. Only after Birmingham did Kennedy announce on national television that civil rights was a “moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” He now proposed landmark civil rights legislation to end Jim Crow.

Even more than Connor, Governor George Wallace of Alabama personified the post-Brown racial fanaticism of Southern politics. After losing the 1958 gubernatorial election to a candidate whose racism was so extreme that it secured him an endorsement from the Klan, Wallace ruminated that “they out-niggered me that time, but they will never do it again.” He made good on that promise in 1962, winning on a campaign promise of defying federal integration orders. His incendiary inaugural address–“I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”–has since become the stuff of legend.

In the summer of 1963, Wallace fulfilled a campaign pledge by physically blocking the University of Alabama’s entrance before stepping aside in the face of superior federal force. That September, he used state troops to block the court-ordered desegregation of public schools in Birmingham, Mobile, and Tuskegee.
Wallace eventually relented. But in doing so, he protested that “I can’t fight federal bayonets with my bare hands,” and within a week Birmingham Klansmen had dynamited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four black schoolgirls. Within hours of the bombing, two other black teenagers were killed. It was the largest death toll of the civil rights era, and Wallace received much of the blame.

Most of the nation was appalled. One week after the bombing, tens of thousands of Americans participated in memorial services and marches. Northern whites wrote to the NAACP to join, to condemn, and to apologize. A white lawyer from Los Angeles wrote that “[t]oday I am joining the NAACP; partly, I think, as a kind of apology for being caucasian.” The NAACP urged members to flood Congress with letters in support of civil rights legislation, and they obliged.

Early in 1965, the SCLC brought the strategy that had worked so well in Birmingham to Selma, Alabama. When the sheriff of Dallas County, in whom King and his colleagues recognized Bull Connor-like proclivities, unleashed stampeding horses, club-wielding officers, and tear gas on peaceful demonstrators in accordance with Governor Wallace’s wishes, ABC television interrupted its broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg for a lengthy report. Once again, the nation was galvanized by the ghastly scenes. Huge sympathy demonstrations took place across the country, and citizens demanded remedial action from their members of Congress, scores of whom endorsed voting rights legislation in response. On March 15, 1965, President Johnson proposed such legislation before a joint session of Congress. Seventy million Americans tuned in as he beseeched them to “overcome this crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

It was the brutalization of peaceful black demonstrators by white law enforcement officers in the South that repulsed national opinion and led directly to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation. Brown kindled Southern extremism, which in turn ignited violence that more moderate Americans found unconscionable. By laying bare the viciousness at the core of white supremacy, Brown accelerated its demise.

Would the same violence have confronted civil rights demonstrators without Brown? One cannot know for certain. But without Brown, school desegregation would probably not have been a pressing issue in the 1950s. Southern blacks generally had other priorities–ending police brutality, securing voting rights, gaining access to decent jobs, and equalizing public funding of black schools. Moreover, before Brown, Southern whites had proved willing to make small concessions on racial issues that were less important to them than school segregation. Without Brown, negotiation might have continued to produce gradual change without inciting white violence.

How Southern whites in this counterfactual universe would have responded if and when black street demonstrations erupted is impossible to tell. In the absence of post-Brown political fanaticism, however, one can imagine Freedom Riders arriving in Birmingham and Montgomery without police commissioners inviting Klansmen to beat them, and one can imagine blacks demonstrating for voting rights in Selma without law enforcement officers brutalizing them. By the early 1960s, most Southern whites probably could have tolerated desegregated transportation and black suffrage, had Brown not converted all racial challenges, in their minds, into fundamental assaults on Jim Crow. Whether and how Southern schools would have desegregated in this counterfactual scenario is anybody’s guess, but it almost certainly would not have happened as quickly as it did under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Only the violence that resulted from Brown’s radicalization of Southern politics enabled transformative racial change to occur as rapidly as it did.