The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education is one of the great landmarks of American history. It is also a good example of the fact that the law is not about the law. Maybe one in 500 college students ever has read the decision, and probably very few Americans could tell you much about the legal questions involved in Brown, but the moral question at the heart of the case — whether an apartheid regime of “separate but [formally] equal” would be allowed to stand in these United States — is well understood. It was well understood by the Court at the time, too: Remarkably, that contentious issue was settled in a unanimous decision. Even Hugo Black, a member of the Ku Klux Klan named to the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt, was on board — but, in all fairness, Justice Black had not joined the Klan because he hated blacks: He had joined the Klan because he hated Catholics.
In any case, unanimity was the order of the day. Justice Felix Frankfurter thought that a unanimous decision was vital, even though a mere majority decision would have been just as legally binding — a fact to keep in mind the next time somebody tries to convince you that the Court is something other than a political body. It was not enough to have a decision in favor of desegregation: The country needed a mandate
against segregation. It was in all likelihood death that made that unanimity possible: Chief Justice Fred Vinson, appointed by Democrat Harry S. Truman, had been hostile to overturning segregation without an act of Congress calling expressly for that. He died before Brown
was decided. His replacement, Earl Warren, appointed by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, was eager to repeal segregation: He had been involved in fighting segregation in the California schools for some years, and as governor had signed the repeal of the last of the state’s segregation statutes.
Brown could hardly have been more symbolic. Third-grader Linda Brown had to walk six blocks to the bus stop and then ride a bus for a mile to her all-black elementary school, while there was another elementary school — an all-white one — just seven blocks away. Had it not been for segregation, Miss Brown would have attended Sumner Elementary, named for the great abolitionist Republican; instead, she was consigned to a segregated school named for Virginia slaveholder and proto-Democrat James Monroe. Sumner Elementary would later be closed by Topeka’s authorities — as part of a legally mandated desegregation plan necessitated by post-Brown litigation.
Everybody knows what happened in Topeka. Nobody knows what happened in Phoenix. And that is both odd and unfortunate.
When Earl Warren was working to undermine segregation in California, a number of his legal colleagues fanned out across the Southwest hoping to challenge segregation both in the courtroom and in the statehouses. We often forget that segregation was not for the most part something cooked up by wicked proprietors of theaters and restaurants (though there were those, too, to be sure), but was in the main something imposed on them by state and local governments. California had attempted to liberalize segregation by adopting a law making it voluntary, its enforcement optional. While that law would later be ruled unconstitutional, it was popular for a time as one possible model for letting a little daylight into the darkness of American race relations. One of the places that was tried was Phoenix.
Here, Barry Goldwater enters the story. Goldwater was a department-store proprietor and a member of the Phoenix city council. He was a very conservative Republican, something that was not at all at odds with his membership in the NAACP, which was, in the 1950s, an organization in which Republicans and conservatives still were very much welcome. The civil-rights community in Phoenix, such as it was, did not quite know what to make of Goldwater. It was already clear by then that he was to be a conservative’s conservative and a man skeptical of federal overreach; while he described himself as being unprejudiced on what was at the time referred to as “the race question,” the fact was that he did not talk much about it, at least in public. His family department stores were desegregated under his watch, though he was not known to hire blacks to work there. But when the Arizona legislature was considering making segregation voluntary in the public schools, Goldwater was lobbying for it behind the scenes. And, perhaps more important, he organized a group of well-known white conservative leaders to do so as well. He did so on the advice of his friend Lincoln Ragsdale.
Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale were the first couple of civil rights in Arizona at the time. Lincoln had joined the Tuskegee Airmen in 1944, but the worst injury he ever got during his time in the service was a near-lynching at the hands of a gang of Alabama police officers after he was insufficiently deferential to a white gas-station clerk. One of the cops had intended to kill him, but the others objected on the grounds that he was wearing a military uniform. (Alabama had a very strange sense of patriotism at the time.) Lincoln was kind of a bad-ass: When he and his wife moved into a white neighborhood in Phoenix, vandals painted the word “NIGGER” in two-foot-high letters on the front of his house. Rather than paint over it, Lincoln left it there for all to see: “I wanted to make sure that the white folks knew where the nigger lived,” he later explained. Neighbors offered to buy him out, sparing him and the neighborhood the friction of his presence. He stayed put. In his Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West, Matthew C. Whitaker writes that pulling over Lincoln Ragsdale’s Cadillac sedan to harass the driver was a “rite of passage” for the local police.