Looking Back at Brown

Exhibit Explores the Impact of the Landmark Decision

Posted May 12, 2004 at 4:04pm

Sometimes celebrating anniversaries can be a bit misleading.

Although Monday will mark 50 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, the real history and legal work behind that momentous case began decades earlier in the 1930s. And although the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in 1954, full integration of American schools is a reality that is much younger than 50.

It is this full spectrum of history, both before and after the Supreme Court case, that the Library of Congress hopes to show visitors in its new exhibit, “With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty.”

Opening today in the South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Great Hall, the exhibit takes its title from a

quote by Robert Carter, a counsel for the plaintiffs in the case who argued before the Supreme Court that, “It is our position that any legislative or governmental classification must fall with an even hand on all persons similarly situated.”

The new exhibit uses more than 100 items from the Library’s own collection to trace integration in American schools from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision through the civil rights movement.

Brown v. Board of Education “was not something that just dropped out of the sky,” said Daun van Ee, a historian for the Library and one of the curators who worked on the exhibit. “This was a very drawn-out legal process.”

Presented in three parts, the exhibit was pieced together by 11 curators from 11 different Library divisions over the course of the past year. It incorporates original items from the founding documents of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to Rosa Parks’ arrest record from Montgomery, Ala.

As visitors make their way through the exhibit, they can see early legal cases from the beginning of the 20th century and learn how the legal arm of the NAACP laid the groundwork for the Brown case in the 1930s.

“We have a unique opportunity as the custodians of the NAACP’s records to trace their involvement in this case,” said Adrienne Cannon, an Afro-American history and culture specialist at the Library.

In the second section, the exhibit studies the actual Supreme Court case and the immediate reaction to the decision in the United States. It explores the legal strategy used by the NAACP that consolidated five different cases into what eventually would be known simply as Brown v. Board of Education.

“When people hear about the case they automatically think of Oliver Brown, but there were 13 other plaintiffs in the case. His was just the first name on the list alphabetically,” Cannon said.

The last section takes visitors through the implications from the 1954 decision through the tumultuous 1960s and shows how the historic case helped shape the civil rights movement.

One of the most interesting features in the exhibit is a display on the evidence used by the plaintiffs in the Brown case to show the detrimental effects of segregation. Using a test involving white- and brown-skinned dolls, the prosecution showed how black children developed a sense of inferiority in their learning environments and even learned to identify less with the dolls that matched their skin color. Visitors can view the actual surveys and see the answers given by some of the 3- to 7-year-old children who took the test.

Various newspaper articles from different moments in the integration process are also on display. One headline from the June 7, 1955, issue of the Afro American reads, “Court Decision May Prove More Potent than Mint Julep.”

Hand-written letters from Chief Justice Earl Warren and other Supreme Court justices help bring to life the incredible implications of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and underscore the enormity of the situation that took place a half century ago across the street from the Library.

As visitors move through the exhibition area they can also stop and view selected personal accounts of the civil rights movement from Library’s oral history project “Voices of Civil Rights.”

The Library of Congress will be sponsoring lectures, concerts and a film series in connection with its new exhibit which will take place in the coming weeks and months. On Monday, a panel discussion titled “Reporting History: The Legacy of Brown” will feature journalists George Collins, Dorothy Gilliam and Bill Taylor who will discuss their various experiences reporting on school integration. Also next week, Georgetown Law professor Sheryll Cashin will discuss her book “The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream” at the Library.

“With an Even Hand: Brown v. Board at Fifty” will be on display from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Nov. 13 at the Library of Congress. It is free and open to the public. For more information about the exhibit or events, visit www.loc.gov.