What can judges do to change society? Fifty-seven years ago, the Supreme Court resolved to find out: the unanimous ruling they issued in Brown v. Board of Education threw the weight of the Constitution fully behind the aspiration of social equality among the races. The possibilities of law as an engine of social justice seem to be encapsulated in the story of the decision — and in the many decades of resistance to its enforcement.
Today, there are those who argue that the Court failed in its goal, since actual racial mixing in U.S. schools has declined steadily over the last 35 years. But in her new book, In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark (Oxford UP, 2011), Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow argues that the legacy of Brown should be viewed in a larger context. Neither a self-executing mandate for racial equality nor a futile rhetorical exercise, the decision was destined to become a lodestar for a wide variety of reformers in all areas of American society — and beyond.
In a series of case studies, Dean Minow’s book reveals how Brown, the milestone in American jurisprudence, took on meanings the judges never envisioned, in the hands of advocates who, in 1954, nobody could have expected. Whatever else it was, the decision was that vital ingredient to be coupled with any kind of action: an idea whose time had come.