Brown v. Board of Education 1954
Appellants: Oliver Brown and several other parents of black schoolchildren
Appellee: Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
Appellant's Claim: That racial segregation of public schools denied black schoolchildren equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Robert L. Carter, Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood W. Robinson, Charles S. Scott
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Harold R. Fatzer, Paul E. Wilson
Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, Harold Burton, Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Sherman Minton, Stanley Forman Reed, Chief Justice Earl Warren
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: May 17, 1954
Decision: Ruled in favor of Brown by finding that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Significance: The decision was an historic ruling regarding segregation of public places. In ending segregation of public schools, the decision overturned Plessy's "separate but equal" doctrine and paved the way for desegregation of other types of public places in the next two decades.
Immediately following the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), the U.S. government took a number of measures to recognize and protect the civil rights of black Americans. Three new constitutional amendments were adopted between 1865 and 1870 banning slavery, extending basic rights to blacks, and granting citizenship. From approximately 1865 to 1877, the U.S. military occupied the former Confederate states to enforce social and political changes in Southern society. In addition, Congress passed civil rights laws to protect black Americans from discrimination in public places. However, resistance by many Southern whites to social change remained strong. Finally, by the mid-1870s government efforts to force social change had weakened and Southern whites began to gain political control of the South again. The Southern states and local governments began to pass laws to keep blacks politically and economically inferior to whites. Many of the laws, known as Jim Crow laws, forced public racial segregation (keeping the races from mixing).
The U.S. Supreme Court handed down rulings which greatly hindered black's drive for social justice. First, in Civil Rights Cases (1883) the Court ruled that constitutional protections did not extend to privately owned public places, such as restaurants, inns, and theaters. Therefore, private owners of such establishments could keep blacks from entering. Then, in 1896 the Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that keeping races separated was constitutionally valid as long as facilities for blacks were equal to those for whites. This decision establishing the "separate but equal" doctrine added further support to Jim Crow laws. State-required segregation invaded every aspect of public social life in schools, transportation, and housing, particularly in the South.
Greatly disappointed with the Court decisions and not accepting that the Constitution allows racial discrimination, a group of black and white proponents of social justice came together in 1909 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP was dedicated to fighting segregation and the Jim Crow laws in the courts. After achieving some courtroom victories, the NAACP began to focus in the 1930s on segregation in public schools. By 1939, future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall assumed leadership of the NAACP's legal department, known as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Following World War II (1939–45), Marshall and the NAACP gained two victories in school segregation. The Court in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) ruled that a separate law school for blacks in Texas could not provide thePage 781 | Top of Article same opportunities as the long established University of Texas Law School. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) the Court ruled that a separate library and lecture hall seat for a black graduate student were not constitutional. However, the NAACP had not directly addressed the "separate but equal" doctrine or school segregation in general. They began searching for the perfect cases to challenge those social policies.
Oliver Brown's Daughter, Linda
Like many states, Kansas had passed a law giving school districts the choice of segregating their schools. The Topeka school district chose to do just that. By the early 1950s twenty-two public elementary schools existed in town, eighteen for white schoolchildren and four for black schoolchildren.
Born in 1919, Oliver Brown was a railroad welder, a war veteran, and assistant pastor at his church. He had no reputation as a social activist, quietly living in his community. Living close to his work, his neighborhood bordered a railroad switching yard. He and his wife had three daughters. Though they lived only seven blocks from the nearest elementary school, it was for whites only. His children had to walk through the dangerous switching yard to the nearest black school about a mile away. Oliver did not want to have his eight year-old daughter walk through the switchyards to school simply because she was black. Brown learned of the NAACP looking for test cases to challenge school segregation policies and agreed to join the effort in addition to several other parents of black schoolchildren in Topeka. In September of 1950, Oliver took his daughter Linda to the nearby white school to enroll in the third grade. The school's principal refused to admit her.
In March of 1951 Brown aided by NAACP lawyers filed a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas requesting a court order to prohibit continuation of the segregated school system.
The District Court tried the case in late June. Among witness supporting Brown were experts testifying that segregated schools were automatically unequal despite their quality because the separation gave black children a feeling of inferiority. Such a system could not possibly prepare them for their adult lives. The school board responded that because almost all aspects of public life were racially segregated even restaurants and bathrooms, segregated schools were actually preparing the childrenPage 782 | Top of Article for the realities of adult life. The board did not see segregation as an undesirable way to live. The Board pointed to some famous black Americans as examples that segregation did not keep blacks from success. Brown countered that exceptions always exist, but for most children segregation significantly reduces opportunities later in life. People tend to live up to what is expected of them, and segregation sends a clear message of lower expectations.
In August of 1951 the District Court issued its ruling. Despite agreeing with Brown's arguments concerning the bad effects of school segregation on black schoolchildren, the court stated that because of the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy it had no choice but to rule in favor of the Board of Education. No constitutional violations existed.
Oliver Brown Goes to Washington
Brown appealed the court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court accepted the case and in June of 1952 combined it with four other cases challenging school segregation policies elsewhere in the nation. On December 9, 1952, the two sides presented their arguments before the Court. Brown argued that the school segregation policy violated his family's equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment declares, "No state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographic area over which the government has authority] the equal protection of the laws." John W. Davis, a presidential candidate earlier in 1924, presented the Board of Education's arguments. He claimed that the Fourteenth Amendment never intended to prevent segregation of schools. Besides, he claimed, "the happiness, the progress and the welfare of these children is best promoted in segregated schools." He further added the courts did not even have constitutional authority to direct how local school districts would be operated.
With only eight members of the Court present instead of the usual nine, a stalemate was reached after hearing arguments. The Court requested the two sides to come back and reargue the case again. The Court further requested that for the second hearing, the two sides should focus on some specific issues, including the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The Court wanted to explore more about the amendment's intent toward school segregation at the time of adoption. Though disappointed with the Court's decision to rehear the case, Brown and the NAACP lawyers saw it as an indication the Court was considering overturning Plessy.
Mr. Brown Returns to Washington
While the parties were away preparing their new arguments, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died and Earl Warren was appointed in his place. Arguments on the points the Court had requested were held almost exactly one year later on December 8, 1953. Research by the parties indicated that school segregation was not really considered when the Fourteenth Amendment was written and adopted. In fact, required school attendance essentially did not exist in the 1860s. Consequently, effects of the amendment on public education was not a major concern at the time.
On May 17, 1954, the Court delivered its unanimous (9-0) ruling with a fairly brief written opinion for such an important case. The Court found in favor of Brown and the NAACP by agreeing segregation is automatically unequal regardless if the black children had the same quality of facilities, teachers, and books. New Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the Court, emphasized that education had become a much more important part of American life since the 1890s when the Plessy decision had been made. As Warren wrote,
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of the state and local governments. . . It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities. . . It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. . . Such an opportunity . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
Building on its 1950 decisions in Sweatt and McLaurin, Warren wrote,
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We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently [undeniably] unequal. Therefore, we hold that the [Browns] and others similarly situated . . . by reason of the segregation complained of, [are] deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The "separate but equal' doctrine allowing the separation of children by race into different schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Relying on the results of seven sociological studies on the harmful effects of racial segregation, he added that segregation gave black schoolchildren "a feeling of inferiority [feeling less worthy than others] as to their status [place] in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone." Not only were their lives harmed, but the general welfare of American society as well.
The Court remanded (returned) Brown's and the other four cases back to the local courts to determine if the local schools were doing enough to move desegregation (outlawing segregation) along.
The Court also requested the NAACP lawyers to come back yet again the following year with suggestions on how school desegregation should be carried out. In 1955 the Court unanimously ruled that all school districts must desegregate "with all deliberate speed." The Court established guidelines giving local school officials the main responsibility for desegregation, but gave the federal district courts responsibility to watch over how the schools were doing. The courts were to consider unique local factors hindering desegregation progress.
The Brown decision introduced fundamental changes in U.S. society. But, just as it took nearly sixty years to reverse legalized discrimination as supported by the Plessy decision, another twenty years would pass before school desegregation in America would be accomplished. Resistance to the Brown decision contributed to the growth of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Considerable social unrest and violence followed in the 1960s. Oliver Brown died in 1961, not to see the ultimate results of his efforts to simply have children attend the public school closest to their home. One by one the government took resistant local school districts to court to force desegregation. Finally, by the early 1970s school segregation policies had been largely eliminated.
The Brown ruling also set the stage for desegregation in other phases of public life as well, from bus stations to public libraries to restrooms. However, the racial mix in public schools still was an issue by the close of the twentieth century. White flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and growth of private schools still left a largely segregated system with black urban schools and white suburban schools. Still, the Brown
ruling is regarded as one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in the nation's history.
Suggestions for further reading
Fireside, Harvey, and Sarah B. Fuller. Brown v. Board of Education: Equal Schooling for All. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.
Howard, John R. The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction to Brown. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Thomas, Bettye C., and V. P. Franklin. My Soul Is a Witness: A Chronology of the Civil Rights Era, 1954-1965. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.
Ware, Leland. Thurgood Marshall: Freedom's Defender. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Education, 1999.
Williams, Juan. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. New York: Time Books, 1998.