Chief Justice Earl Warren and Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Earl Warren, 1948 Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92346)

In From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004) Michael Klarman describes and interprets the contextual factors that explain the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education judicial ruling and it’s influence on America’s race relations. Klarman focuses on the leadership of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and how his influence shaped the Court’s opinion.

Brown v. Board of Education (1) 347. U.S. 483 (1954) overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that declared state-sponsored segregation constitutional. In 1951, lawyers within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sponsored a lawsuit designed to force the Court’s confrontation with segregation of schools. Brown v. Board of Education was composed of five separate cases, from Kansas, Washington D.C., Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia. In the case of each suit black children were denied enrollment in the local public elementary schools white children attended on the basis of segregation laws. Chief Justice Fred Vinson’s Supreme Court heard Brown v. Board of Education in December 1952. Unable to come to a decision and standing deeply divided (4-3-2) Vinson’s court decided to have the cases reargued.

After the sudden death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson in 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren, the governor of California, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (302) Earl Warren (1891-1974), born in Los Angeles California, served in World War I and as the attorney general of California, before serving as governor and chief justice. (A full biography can be found on American National Biography) Shortly after Warren’s appointment, in December 1953, the Court heard the re-argument of Brown. In the justices’ opening conference Warren proclaimed, “separate but equal doctrine rests on basic premise that the Negro race is  inferior, ” but considering the intellect and argument of the black councilmen Thurgood Marshall “proves they are not inferior.” (302) The cases presiding justices included Tom C. Clark, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, Sherman Minton, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo L. Black, Stanley F. Reed and William O.Douglas.  May 17, 1954 Warren publicly announced the court’s decision declaring,  “We conclude unanimously that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Several primary sources on Brown can be found online in the collections at the Eisenhower Presidential Library.One of the best sources on Brown, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Justice by Richard Kulger, was originally published in 1975. In 2004 Kulger published a well-reviewed expanded edition for Brown’s fiftieth anniversary, both editions can be found in the Dickinson College Library.

Most scholars attribute the unanimity of Brown to Warren’s personal and political skills, including Klarman who identifies Warren as a necessary factor in the court’s decision. (302) Given the influence of Warren’s Constitutional interpretation on fundamental American rights, numerous scholars have attempted to capture the personal and political life of Earl Warren. Published in the late 1960s, two of the first biographies on Earl Warren include, Leo Katcher’s Earl Warren: A Political Biography (McGraw Hill, 1967) and John Weaver’s Warren: the man, the court, the era (Gollancz, 1968). Both of these books can be found in the Kennedy Collection of Dickinson College’s Archives. In 1982, leading scholar G. Edward White published the major biography Earl Warren: A Public Life (Oxford University Press, 1982) where he examines Warren’s entire political career while considering his seemingly paradoxical character. One valuable aspect of the biography is the inclusion of an appendix listing all the decisions Warren ever wrote. A 1983 source, Super Chief: Earl Warren and His Supreme Court: A Judicial Biography (New York University Press, 1983) by Bernard Schwartz focuses and expands upon the history of the Warren Court and examines the differing backgrounds and opinions of the justices. Both of these books can be found in the Dickinson Library and on Google Books. Jim Newton, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, published the most recent and highly praised biography on Earl Warren in 2007. Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made (Penguin, 2007), captures Warren from birth through his service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The second half of the book focuses on the highly controversial cases of Warren’s career as Chief Justice such as Brown and Miranda. What is most interesting about Newton’s biography is that he explores the complexity of Earl Warren as a strict conservative who, despite fierce opposition, presided over a liberal court.

Two autobiographies have been published since Earl Warren’s death in July of 1974. (See Warren’s obituary ‘Earl Warren, 83, Who Led High Court In Time Of Vast Social Change, Is Dead’ published July 10, 1974 in The New York Times.) In the 1977 publication, The Memoirs of Earl Warren (Doubleday, 1977), Warren recounts his early political career as governor of California as well as the effects of controversial Supreme Court cases on him personally. The 2001 publication, entitled The Memoirs of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Madison Books, 2001) also describes Warrens time in public office. The Dickinson College Library and Google Books own both texts.


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