From Volume 84, Number 3 (March 2011)
On March 27, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., exhausted by a day of antipoverty rallies in New Jersey, and frustrated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s poverty campaign in Washington, D.C. and Memphis, Tennessee declared: “We may be integrating into a burning house.” The story of the failed integration of America’s “burning house”–its schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces–begins for many with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Fifty-six years later, on March 8, 2010, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan invoked both King and Brown in announcing the renewed commitment of the department to civil rights enforcement in schools across America. Standing at the historic site of Bloody Sunday in Selma, a critical battle ground in the civil rights movement, Duncan outlined a series of new enforcement initiatives–guidance letters, compliance reviews, data collection, and monitoring–intended to redress school-based inequities in urban communities of color. Espousing “the cause of equal educational opportunity,” he asked: “How do we maximize freedom and opportunity in schools and communities where low-income black and brown children, and students with disabilities, still are treated unequally?”
Duncan’s modern invocation of Brown, his commitment to educational opportunity and racial justice in new contexts of inequality, and his search for alternative pathways to ensure community equity invites a contemporary reassessment of Brown in America’s inner-city public schools and impoverished neighborhoods. Martha Minow’s superb new book, In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark, presents a sweeping appraisal of the landmark status and mixed legacy of Brown in the field of public education, here and abroad. The dean of Harvard Law School and an international leader in law reform and educational policy, Minow embraces Brown as an enduring, fruitful resource for civic reformers engaged in law, social science, and social justice movements. Her purpose in revisiting Brown stems from an academic and activist sense of dismay over the bleak tenor of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of that ground-breaking decision in public and scholarly discourse, a widely circulated discourse that “stressed the failures of the decision.” To her credit, Minow offers In Brown’s Wake as a useful corrective, duly acknowledging her own “disappointments” in Brown and its legal-political progeny while exploring its “unexpected legacies” for the nation and the international community.