In 1948, Sen. Hubert Humphrey – against all odds – persuaded the Democratic National Convention to adopt a strong civil rights plank, calling on Democrats to emerge from the "shadows of states" rights and "walk into the bright sunshine of civil rights." That led to a walkout of the Dixiecrats and to Strom Thurmond's candidacy for president, but Harry Truman was elected and for the first time in the century civil rights became an explicit part of the presidential agenda.
The events of 1948 helped create an environment that led to the Supreme Court's momentous decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, piercing the massive fiction of "separate but equal" and declaring an end to the racial caste system that had prevailed in the South after the abolition of slavery.
I was privileged in late 1954 to join Thurgood Marshall and the team of lawyers who developed the strategy for overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and who pursued it until they prevailed. They were courageous people, working sometimes in the face of physical threats, and they were daring as well in the belief that they could challenge a Supreme Court precedent of 64 years standing that reflected practices and beliefs that were deeply entrenched. These lawyers were truly people who "saw things that never were and asked why not."
But the huge transformation of our society that ultimately resulted from Brown did not occur until, acting under the spur of white repression of Martin Luther King's peaceful protest movement, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In providing the leadership for those laws, Lyndon Johnson knew that he was forfeiting the dominance of the Democratic party in the South. But he also knew that the imperative of equal justice would not allow him to do otherwise.
So the triumph of Brown in helping to create a nation in which African Americans, Latinos, women, people with disabilities and others who faced discrimination have broken through the barriers was the product of political leadership, as well as, the Court's decision.
Today, we live in a different time. The world has grown more complex and issues of energy, the environment, trade and now terrorism dominate the agenda. While many minority people have prospered others have not had access to opportunity and we are increasingly a nation of haves and have nots.
But I have come to think that the qualities that produced enormous change in the 50s, 60s and 70s today are in short supply. A few elected leaders are indefatigable crusaders for equal opportunity, but they are a relative handful. For example, in the drive to fulfill the promise of Brown by providing a quality education system for the poorest children in our nation, some politicians shrink from supporting fiscal reforms to change a property tax system that benefits the wealthy. Some also are loath to offend teachers unions who resist merit pay proposals to encourage teachers to take on the hardest challenges and reward them for succeeding.
Few politicians seem ready to commit themselves to the investments that are needed to increase the education and skills of people whose talents lie buried beneath poverty. No think tank that I am aware of has taken on the task of comparing the costs of such investments to the costs of the consequences of poverty and social dysfunction, including the huge expenses of maintaining prison systems.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown I hope we will be thinking about these current challenges and also about the qualities of courage and daring that a Humphrey, a Marshall, an Earl Warren, a King or a Johnson would bring to them
Bill Taylor is a civil rights lawyer who spent four years working for Thurgood Marshall. His book, the Passion of My Times, will be published in September by Carroll & Graf.