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Brown v. Board: W&M law professors share personal stories

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Linda Malone’s parents used the “N” word.  Larry Palmer’s “brilliant” elementary-school teacher had no  career choices other than to teach. Davison Douglas’ world was white—with three exceptions.  Paul Marcus watched his Los Angeles school district segregate more than a decade after Brown v Board of Education.

Malone, Palmer, Douglas and Marcus, each a professor of law at the College of William & Mary, shared those experiences during a law-school forum based on the book “The Law Touched Our Hearts,” to which each had contributed.

Mildred Wigfall Robinson, the Doherty Charitable Foundation Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and co-editor of the book, moderated discussion during the forum. The title of the book, she explained, referenced a conversation between Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the time the case was being considered. Eisenhower was doubtful that a Court order could “change the hearts of men” regarding segregation.

Malone, the Marshall-Wythe Foundation Professor of Law, described how hard it was to overcome a racist mentality as a child growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn. Finally she read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. “I was Huck Finn.” She said. “I had been raised in a very racist way. I couldn’t understand why I started feeling different …  I just realized that it was wrong.”

Palmer, professor of law and research, discussed Fulbright scholar Dr. Hyram, the St. Louis public-school teacher who helped instill a sense of overcoming adversity in his students. “What I really feel in reflecting on this is a sort of survivor’s guilt,” Palmer said. “I got all of that because Dr. Hyram didn’t have any other opportunities.”

Douglas, Arther B. Hanson Professor of Law (and recently named dean of the law school), said, “My world was white. My church was white. My school was white. My neighborhood was white. My Boy Scout troop was white. … Until the fall of 1969.” In 1969, Charlotte, N.C. began a massive busing program in order to integrate its school system. Douglas’ became friends with one of the new students who joined the debate team. “I got a different kind of education in terms of understanding what it was like to be in someone else’s very different experience,” he said.

Marcus, Haynes Professor of Law, detailed how his Los Angeles high school, which had been integrated, segregated following threats of lawsuits seeking redistricting. Subsequently there was a rise in the number of high-priced private schools catering to parents who were fearful that redistricting would negatively impact their children. The result is that high-school students in the city have a very different educational experience today, Marcus said.

See feature story on the Law School Web site.