Harvard professor talks history at MU

Michael Klarman delivered seminar on landmark Brown v. Board decision.
Harvard law professor Michael Klarman lectures Tuesday at Hulston Hall. Klarman explained the problems within the Supreme Court dealing with racism during the ruling of the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Harvard law professor Michael Klarman spoke on the background and setting of Brown v. Board of Education on Tuesday in Hulston Hall.

The MU chapter of the Order of the Coif, an honorary academic society of law, annually chooses a leading figure in the law community to come speak to and answer questions from students and Columbia residents.

Klarman, the 2010 Order of the Coif distinguished lecturer, came to Hulston Hall to discuss not only the case, but the social setting and personal background of the justices involved in the decision. He also spoke about the underlying tension between the justices during the trial's proceedings.

In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the issue of segregation in grade schools was brought to the national stage. The decision would either overrule or reaffirm a previous court case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which legalized "separate but equal" segregation. But it wasn't only one plaintiff who would be affected -- similar cases were decided under the same verdict.

“'This will not be a picnic,'” Klarman said, quoting Justice Hugo Black. “'This will not be a walk in the park.'”

Klarman spoke of how, both before and after the trial, the justices were constantly in conflict. Divisions arose because of threatening white supremacists, demanding local court justices, the rights of states and personal beliefs. At one point, a justice had to be physically restrained from punching another justice in the face.

“But the question is, does the due process clause condemn Congress from striking down segregation?” Klarman said.

The Court justices were in a constant conflict of interest and had to come to a safe, justifiable conclusion amid national cross burning, the Ku Klux Klan and racial activism.

“All of the justices at one point or another expressed astonishment at the speed of progress in regards to race,” Klarman said.

Both undergraduates and law students were in attendance at Klarman’s lecture.

“I learned about court cases in high school, but this made them so much more interesting,” freshman Lian Markovich said.

Audience members weren't only students and local residents, but also local and state court justices. After his discussion, Klarman briefly answered questions pertaining to historical court cases, law in today’s society and how the court relates to racial issues today.

“Professor Klarman gave an excellent presentation on the historical background of the case,” law student Elizabeth Pippert said. “It was fascinating to learn about the justices' personal feelings, and it really helped me gain more understanding about the court case.”

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