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Signals and Spillover: Brown v. Board of Education and Other Social Movements

  • David S. Meyer (a1) and Steven A. Boutcher (a2)


The watershed Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education affected activist politics on issues that extend well beyond African-American civil rights or education. The apparent success of the Court decision in spurring social change encouraged activists in other social movements to emulate the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's litigation strategy, and to adapt organizational structures, political strategies, and rhetoric borrowed from the civil rights movement. We examine how a Supreme Court decision and its subsequent interpretation influenced the development of other social movements. Borrowing from work on social movements, we contend that the Court decision signaled judicial openness to stand up for minority points of view on questions of fundamental rights, and that the civil rights movement spilled over to affect other movements. Activists continued to respond to that signal decades after Brown, even when that signal of judicial responsiveness and openness did not reflect the real prospects for achieving influence through a litigation-based strategy.David S. Meyer is Professor of Sociology and Political Science ( and Steven A. Boutcher is Doctoral Candidate ( in Sociology, University of California, Irvine. We are grateful for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper from Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Catherine Corrigall-Brown, Stephanie DiAlto, Sharon Lean, Sharon Oselin, and Su Yang.



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Perspectives on Politics
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