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With the benefit of half a century of hindsight, the legal questions that grew out of civil rights battles surrounding education may seem easy. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a no-brainer. Of course, we might think, children of all races have an equal right to quality education. Of course, we now realize, the idea of "separate but equal" was a fraud—an unjust legal cover for segregation. Within the 1957 confrontation at Little Rock's Central High School, both "right" and "wrong" were easy to identify. On one side, nine innocent African-American children simply sought to enter the school to begin classes; on the other side, vicious white mobs, whipped into a venomous frenzy by the very idea of school desegregation, shouted racial epithets.
But the controversies surrounding education and race in our own time strike many as more complex. Many don't find the same moral and political clarity in affirmative action that they found in school desegregation. During the 1950s, the federal courts legitimately attacked discrimination, these folks argue; now, though, the courts illegitimately enforce "reverse discrimination."
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Southern opponents of school integration believed that the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown threatened the very fabric of southern society. And they were even more certain that the use of federal troops at Little Rock violated their constitutionally protected rights.
Will history judge affirmative action as the just successor to Brown v. Board? Will its critics be lumped together with the angry mobs shouting curses at the black students trying to enter the formally all-white school? Or will history judge affirmative action a mistake, a strange distortion of the egalitarian principles that drove the civil rights movement in its beginnings?