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The Lost Promise of Civil Rights

The Lost Promise of Civil Rights

Risa L. Goluboff

ISBN 9780674034693

Publication date: 03/30/2010

Listen to a short interview with Risa GoluboffHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

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.


  • The Lost Promise of Civil Rights is brilliant. It will revolutionize our understanding of civil rights, what they mean, and where they come from. The Lost Promise of Civil Rights will be widely read and debated, and it will place Goluboff at the front rank of twentieth-century American historians.

    —Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania Law School


  • 2008, Joint winner of the James Willard Hurst Prize
  • 2010, Winner of the Order of the Coif Book Award


  • Risa L. Goluboff is Professor of Law, Professor of History, and Caddell & Chapman Research Professor at the University of Virginia.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press