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Posted Feb. 27, 2009

A Generation Looks Back at Brown in New Book

A new book edited by a pair of Law School professors explores the profound impact the Brown v. Board of Education decision had on the generation that grew up during the struggle against segregation.

“Law Touched Our Hearts” consists of 40 personal essays compiled by professors Richard Bonnie and Mildred Robinson, each by authors who were in elementary or secondary school when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the end of school segregation or in the immediate aftermath.

Law Touched Our Hearts

“I think the genesis of this book is the observation that the law, and Brown and what it stood for, touched the hearts of children in a way that has been quite formative, not just for the people who wrote these essays, but for a whole generation of Americans,” Bonnie said.

The book, published by Vanderbilt University Press, is the culmination of a project that grew out of conversations that began more than 20 years ago between Robinson and Bonnie. The pair identified Brown as a major influence on their lives and surmised that the same might be true for others of their generation.

Both were public school students when the decision was handed down: Robinson in South Carolina, where her parents were educators, and Bonnie in Norfolk, one of a handful of Virginia localities where officials decided to close the school system rather than integrate.

As the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education approached, Bonnie and Robinson began considering ways to explore the case’s impact on others who were in school at the time of the decision

“Mildred has referred to it as an exercise in collective memory,” Bonnie said.

They sent out about 5,000 surveys to law school professors born between 1936 and 1954, asking about the personal impact of Brown and inviting respondents to contribute an essay. The survey generated about 1,000 responses, as well as a “marvelous collection of essays,” Robinson said.

“We knew we had to share them,” she said.

The resulting collection covers the end of school segregation from a variety of perspectives, both racial and geographic.

“The 40 essays represent all parts of the country,” Robinson said. “That’s part of the beauty of this book, I think — it’s not just about the Southern experience. It’s about the national experience.”

Though it is a collection of individual stories, the book is made up of essays that combine to create a coherent narrative describing a tumultuous time in our country’s history, Bonnie said.

The title is taken from a White House dinner conversation between President Dwight Eisenhower and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren while the court was considering Brown.

Eisenhower was doubtful that an order from the Supreme Court ending segregation would be successful. “After all, as he put it, ‘Law cannot change the hearts of men,’” Bonnie said.

But despite Eisenhower’s misgivings and the opposition it originally generated, the Brown decision was successful in affecting the nation’s children, and has been a positive transformative force over the past half-century, Bonnie said.

“I think that emerges very, very clearly in these essays,” he said.

Robinson thanked the Law School for assistance along the way, especially the Dean’s Office and the staff. “I think every secretary in the building must have been involved at one time or another in helping get all this correspondence out,” she said.

She also expressed gratitude to the survey respondents and other colleagues who either participated or expressed good wishes during the process.

“And we’d like to thank Vanderbilt University Press for having enough faith to undertake this project,” she said.

Contact Richard Bonnie or Mildred Robinson