Published 1976 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Finalist, National Book Award in History
Simple Justice is generally regarded as the classic account of the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal decision outlawing racial segregation and the centerpiece of African-Americans’ ongoing crusade for equal justice under law.
The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education brought centuries of legal segregation in this country to an end. It was and remains, beyond question, one of the truly significant events in American history, “probably the most important American government act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation,” in the view of constitutional scholar Louis H. Pollak. The Brown decision climaxed a long, torturous battle for black equality in education, making hard law out of vague principles and opening the way for the broad civil rights upheavals of the 1960s and beyond.
Simple Justice is the story of that battle. Richard Kluger traces the background of the epochal decision, from its remote legal and cultural roots to the complex personalities of those who brought about its realization. The result is a landmark work of popular history, graceful and fascinatingly detailed, the panoramic account of a struggle for human dignity in process since the birth of the nation.
Here is the human drama, told in all its dimensions, of the many plaintiffs, men, women, and children, variously scared or defiant but always determined, who made the hard decision to proceed – bucking the white power structure in Topeka, Kansas; braving night riders in rural South Carolina; rallying fellow high school students in strictly segregated Prince Edward County, Virginia – and at a dozen other times and places showing their refusal to accept defeat.
Here, too, is the extraordinary tale, told for the first time, of the black legal establishment, forced literally to invent itself before it could join the fight, then patiently assembling, in courtroom after courtroom, a body of law that would serve to free its people from thralldom to unjust laws. Heroes abound, some obscure, like Charles Houston (who built Howard Law School into a rigorous academy for black lawyers) and the Reverend J.A. DeLaine (the minister-teacher who, despite bitter opposition, organized and led the first crucial fight for educational equality in the Jim Crow South), others like Thurgood Marshall, justly famous – but all of whose passionate devotion proved intense enough to match their mission.
Reading Simple Justice, we see how black Americans’ groundswell urge for fair treatment collides with the intransigence of white supremacists in a grinding legal campaign that inevitably found its way to the halls and chambers of the Supreme Court for a final showdown. Kluger searches out and analyzes what went on there during the months of hearings and deliberations, often behind closed doors, laying bare the doubts, disagreements, and often deeply held convictions of the nine Justices. He shows above all how Chief Justice Earl Warren, new to the Court but old in the ways of politics, achieved the impossible – a unanimous decision to reverse the 58-year-old false doctrine of “separate but equal” education for blacks. Impeccably researched and elegantly written, this may be the most revealing report ever published of America’s highest court at work.
Based on extensive interviews and both published and unpublished documentary sources, Simple Justice has the lineaments of an epic. It will stand as the classic study of a turning point in our history.
Thurgood Marshall, 1957. Photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017657589/.
©2017 Richard Kluger