Professor Michael Klarman’s book, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, covers the entire corpus of Supreme Court case decisions concerning race, from the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Klarman addresses three principal questions: What factors explain the dramatic changes in racial attitudes and practices that occurred between 1900 and 1950? What factors explain judicial rulings such as Plessy and Brown? How much did such Court decisions influence the larger world of race relations? Klarman argues that, in regard to whether state-imposed segregation of the races violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court only reconsidered the meaning of the Constitution once public attitudes had already changed. He writes that the Supreme Court “did not invalidate racial segregation until after public opinion on race had changed dramatically as a result of various forces that originated in, or were accelerated by, World War II.”
This Review explicates the interpretive sweep of Klarman’s book: its treatment of the Jim Crow decades, of the World War II years, of the Brown decision, and of the civil rights movement. It then critically considers Klarman’s overarching argument concerning the Supreme Court’s supposedly minimal role and influence in American politics and society. Lastly, the Review contends that Klarman’s analysis, when understood in conjunction with recent writings by Professors Rosenberg, Tushnet, and Rosen, represents both a potent and a potentially dangerous new political critique of the Supreme Court’s traditional power of constitutional judicial review.