How Howard used the liberal arts to win Brown v. Board of Education

This week we mark the 63rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s monumental decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The anniversary has special resonance this year, because it coincides with the sesquicentennial of Howard University. Without the contributions from this iconic HBCU, the history of school desegregation in the United States might well have been different.

At a time when the relevance of the liberal arts is being questioned and federal support for the arts, humanities and sciences is threatened with deep cuts, it is worth remembering the essential role of the liberal arts curriculum at Howard in shaping the outcome of this landmark decision.

{mosads}Sixty years before Brown, the Supreme Court enshrined the legality of Jim Crow segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that public facilities, including schools, passed muster under the Constitution if they were “separate but equal.” Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and his team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund understood that for Plessy to be reversed, they would have to develop a strategy based not solely in legal argument but rather in requiring the Court to grapple with the latest research in psychology and sociology, powered by faculty and alumni of Howard.


The key psychological insight came from Kenneth Clark, one of the nation’s leading social scientists, trained at Howard by Ralph Bunch, E. Franklin Frazier and Alain Leroy Locke. Clark’s now famous research experiment, conducted in partnership with his wife Mamie Clark, involved giving four dolls, identical except for skin color, to African-American children aged three to seven years old, and asking them to identify the dolls they preferred. The results were shocking to Clark then and are shocking still. A majority of these children preferred the white dolls to the black dolls, and assigned positive characteristics to the white dolls and negative characteristics to the black ones.

These findings demonstrated, in Clark’s own words, “the degree to which the children suffered from self-rejection with this truncating effect on their personalities, and the earliness of the corrosive awareness of color.” Importantly, Clark’s research offered concrete evidence of the pernicious effects of discrimination. Segregation itself was shown to undermine the potential for equality, which in turn exposed the inherent flaws of a separate but equal regime.

Another strand of social science research on which the Brown team relied was from the field of sociology. According to Louisa Holt, who testified as an expert witness, “(a) sense of inferiority must always affect one’s motivation for learning since it affects the feeling one has of one’s self as a person … .” Further, she testified that “legal and official sanction” reinforces that sense of inferiority in the minds of both whites and blacks. Cited by Chief Justice Earl Warren in announcing the May 17, 1954, decision in Brown, Holt’s evidence was a key component of the reasoning that led a unanimous Court to strike down Jim Crow segregation as unconstitutional.

Beyond psychology and sociology, other disciplines and other scholars linked to Howard played a significant role in the Brown decision. Howard’s celebrated historian John Hope Franklin was among the team of scholars who painstakingly reviewed and assembled the historical record of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.

Literature too played a part. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was invoked in Bolling v. Sharpe, a related case decided on the same day as Brown, in an argument crafted by James Nabrit — lawyer, legal academic and later Howard president. Nabrit reminded the justices that the totalitarian communist Soviet Union allegorized in Orwell’s novel had been a society where “all animals are equal” but became one where “some are more equal than others.”

A skilled student of rhetoric, Nabrit pressed the court to see that this was not America: “Our constitution has no provision across it that all men are equal but that white men are more equal than others.” Had he made a direct assertion that segregation rendered the United States no better than our totalitarian adversary, the Court would have been shocked and offended more than persuaded. Metaphor and allegory allowed Nabrit to make his point in a powerful and more persuasive way.

The team that successfully argued Brown understood that they could not change the law solely through reliance on the law. They also relied on the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences to make their successful case. They understood that the purpose of the liberal arts is not only to understand the world but also to change the world. Their work was an inspiration. It inspires still.


Frederick M. Lawrence is the Secretary/CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and is the former president of Brandeis University. He is also a senior research scholar at Yale Law School. Follow him on Twitter @FredMLawrence.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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