When the Warren Court handed down its most famous decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, on May 17, 1954, this writer had a ringside seat at a high school in the inner city of Washington, D.C.
While the Catholic schools had been integrated since 1948 by Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, D.C. public schools remained segregated. But when the new school year began that fall, desegregation was dramatic, swift and peaceful. Hopes for success were high.
The first sign of social change one saw, hitchhiking to school from west of Rock Creek Park, however, was of a bumper crop of "For Sale" signs in the front yards of row houses all the way to the Capitol. The white working and middle classes were fleeing.
While hailing Brown, Washington's social and political elites also headed for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs to enroll their kids or put them in private schools. In little more than a decade, 96 percent of the children in the D.C. public schools were black.
Looking back half a century, what are the positive results of that "experiment noble in purpose" launched by the Warren Court?
Here, they are hard to find. Integration seems to have proven a false promise and a colossal failure. While per-pupil expenditures are among the highest in the nation, the test scores of children in these D.C. schools are among the lowest. In too many, the kids are learning at levels three and four grades below the national norm.
So it has gone across America, not only in the 17 Southern and border states affected by Brown, but in Northern cities like Boston, where mass busing of schoolchildren was ordered by federal judges to bring about a compulsory mixing of the races. The white folks abandoned the city schools, and the city schools went down.
But that May day in 1954, the Warren Court crossed a historic divide. It had executed, in the name of the 14th Amendment, a coup d'etat. It had usurped power over state schools that had never been granted to federal courts either in law or the Constitution.
The 14th Amendment had been approved by the same Congress that presided over the segregated schools of D.C. Thus it was obvious to all that that amendment did not outlaw what its authors had approved. But the Warren Court, impatient at the torpor of the democratic process, had established itself as a dictatorship of nine judges, and ordered the nation to do as it demanded.
The coup succeeded. Though President Eisenhower was stunned by Brown, he and the Republican Congress bowed and accepted the ruling as the law of the land to be enforced, if necessary, by federal troops, as it would be at Central High in Little Rock in 1957.