The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, issued on May 17, 1954, is probably the most important judicial decision in American history.
This week, on its 60th anniversary, the landmark ruling is being celebrated for its historic role in committing the United States to ending legal racial segregation and establishing the courts as a forum in which to secure enhanced protection of rights. All subsequent court decisions advancing the rights of those who have suffered discrimination are built on Brown.
There is another reason, however, that the decision was especially important. The Brown ruling greatly advanced the interests of the United States during the Cold War, when the nation was vying with the Soviet Union for global influence. The Truman administration recognized this in the early 1950s, when it filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court in December 1952, calling for the result that the court announced 17 months later.
The Truman administration’s brief was highly unusual because of its heavy emphasis on foreign-policy considerations in a case ostensibly about domestic issues. Of the seven pages covering “the interest of the United States,” five focused on the way school segregation hurt the United States in the Cold War competition for the friendship and allegiance of non-white peoples in countries then gaining independence from colonial rule.
The brief, submitted by Attorney General James P. McGranery, said, “The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man…. The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” It also featured an excerpt from a letter by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, described as “an authoritative statement of the effects of racial discrimination in the United States upon the conduct of foreign relations.”