May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
With great sadness I’d have to say that the most overrated civil rights initiative is the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. The Brown decision did end legally segregated school systems in the South, and—probably its greatest positive impact—it raised the nation’s consciousness about the wrongness of the Jim Crow system and put the (then highly respected) federal government in a position of firm opposition to it. On the other hand, the issue that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund raised in the case, inferior public education for African-American children, is still very much with us. It seems unfair to treat the Brown decision as a great historic triumph when the public school system is still so separate and so unequal for blacks and whites, even if more because of patterns of residence, taxation, and culture than by legal decree.
I’d like to grant footnote status in the overrated category to the California Civil Rights Initiative of 1996, which banned affirmative action by the state government. The title implies that the initiative will be a milestone on the road to better race relations and improved conditions in black America. It won’t.
My nominee is Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned legal segregation in public accommodations in the South like buses, theaters, and hotels. We forget that this was probably the most controversial part of that landmark law and the part that the Johnson administration was most worried about being able to enforce (as against easy stuff like school desegregation). Title II seemed to be running against the grain of the most deep-seated social custom imaginable. But then it worked, almost magically. Overnight there were no more whiteonly signs and there was no more back of the bus. This happened virtually without incident, even though up to the moment the bill passed, protests against segregated accommodations routinely drew a fierce, violent, even deadly response. The change came so quickly and smoothly that Title II almost never comes up anymore in discussions of race in America; that’s why it qualifies as underrated.