Department Publication

The Lost Promise of Civil Rights

Risa Goluboff

Professor of Law, Professor of History
( Harvard, May 2007 )

In this groundbreaking book, Risa L. Goluboff offers a provocative new account of the history of American civil rights law. The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education has long dominated that history. Since 1954, generations of judges, lawyers, and ordinary people have viewed civil rights as a project of breaking down formal legal barriers to integration, especially in the context of public education. Goluboff recovers a world before Brown, a world in which civil rights was legally, conceptually, and constitutionally up for grabs. Then, the petitions of black agricultural workers in the American South and industrial workers across the nation called for a civil rights law that would redress economic as well as legal inequalities. Lawyers in the new Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice and in the NAACP took the workers' cases and viewed them as crucial to attacking Jim Crow. By the time NAACP lawyers set out on the path to Brown, however, they had eliminated workers' economic concerns from their litigation agenda. When the lawyers succeeded in Brown, they simultaneously marginalized the host of other harms--economic inequality chief among them--that afflicted the majority of African Americans during the mid-twentieth century. By uncovering the lost challenges workers and their lawyers launched against Jim Crow in the 1940s, Goluboff shows how Brown only partially fulfilled the promise of civil rights.

  • 2010 Order of the Coif Book Award, National Order of the Coif
  • Co-winner, 2008 James Willard Hurst Prize, Law and Society Association


Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904



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