In just over a month, the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous and impacting Supreme Court decisions in history. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, decided May 17, 1954, changed the landscape of American politics and paved the way for a new era of civil rights. The landmark decision declared segregation in American public schools to be unconstitutional.
Brown has had immense impact in our country. It served as a catalyst for the vital civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s and can be pointed to as a major factor in the appropriate upgrading of African Americans from second-class to first-class citizens. And, while there is definitely still room for improvement in making the public school system more equal and diverse, Brown was undoubtedly a great step forward.
However, while Brown is clearly one of the bright, shining moments of forward thinking of our Court, for every Brown, there are three other cases in which the Court failed miserably. Those cases often become largely forgotten, and aside from professionals in the legal field, cannot even be identified by the common American. It’s those cases in which we failed that we must be most familiar with, for those are the cases we can learn the most from.
In 1856, the Court decided on the case Dred Scott v. Sandford. Dred Scott was a slave who was moved with his master to a free territory, and so Scott then claimed that his presence in that territory freed him from slave status. The Court’s decision stated that because Scott was a slave, he had no right to even file a lawsuit in the first place; this decision solidified the pro-slavery factions and played a major factor in the beginning of the Civil War.
Later, in 1892, the Court decided on the case Plessy v. Ferguson. This case established the horrific “separate but equal” doctrine that the South relied on for half a century as its reasoning for furthering segregation and oppressing the rights of African Americans living within its borders – the doctrine is often referred to as “separate but unequal.” It was this decision that was eventually overturned by Brown.
Finally, in 1944, the Court heard Korematsu v. United States. This case, heard by many of the same justices that would later hear arguments in Brown, upheld the U.S. government’s ability to arbitrarily uproot Japanese Americans from their homes and throw them in “internment camps” meant for the protection of our national security.
Although Dred Scott, Plessy and Korematsu all took place before Brown – in fact, Brown is one of the few instances in which the Court reversed itself – they show how the Court is not always right. This is worthwhile to remember when looking at current Court decisions, since a ruling considered correct today might prove to be unacceptable in the future.
Brown was a landmark case that saw the judicial system of our country succeed marvelously. Yet, it’s vitally important that we take notice of the many times our justice system has failed us. It’s the times in which it fails to which we can look for lessons on what to be careful not to do in the future.
Cases like Brown v. Board and Roe v. Wade – the cases everyone knows – are the ones in which the political process, regardless of one’s personal political feelings, succeeded in checking the other two branches of government and interpreted constitutional rights favorable to a minority group of U.S. citizens.
However, we must realize that for every Linda Brown, there is a Dred Scott, a Homer Plessy and a Toyosaburo Korematsu. On this 50-year anniversary, they, too, should be remembered.