A couple of months ago, the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. Brown, described by many constitutional scholars as the most important court decision of the 20th century, has become a part of American iconography. Everybody, nowadays, is for it.

Brown shattered assumptions about race and the structure of society. In the ensuing years, it sparked a civil rights revolution that has changed everything from the way we talk about skin color to the composition of the American workforce. The courageous lawyers—and plaintiffs—who pressed the case, sometimes at serious risk to their lives, deserve all the accolades history can bestow.

Yet Brown, for its treasured place in the American story, was controversial. Opposition was hardly limited to a handful of diehard segregationists. Some mainstream newspapers opposed it. So did many leading politicians. There were even opponents within the black community. Many worried that thousands of black teachers would lose their jobs (they did) or that local parents would lose control of their schools (that happened, too). The law of unintended consequences applies to every great achievement, and Brown was no exception.

Sadly, many of the decision's opponents were evangelical Christians, even though the Southern Baptist Convention by that time had taken a stand against segregation. But, all through the South, pastors told their flocks that God had decreed separation of the races. Others said the Bible had nothing to say about social arrangements and the church should therefore stay out of the controversy. Brown also sparked the founding of the "segregation academies," many of them ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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