Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education
The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision overruling the constitutionality of the "separate but equal" doctrine that had been the legal basis for racial segregation of the nation's public schools.
Although the desegregation of southern schools mandated by the decision was slow in coming, Brown v. Board of Education is considered the most significant civil rights court case of the 20th century for the legal precedent it set and for the hope it gave to black people throughout the nation.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the southern states had had a legal justification for requiring black students to attend segregated schools. The Supreme Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld segregated railroad car seating in Louisiana on the grounds that "equal but separate" seating did not violate the black passengers' rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For half a century, this nearunanimous decision (only one justice dissented) served as the legal grounds for racial segregation in virtually all areas of southern life, including education. However, segregated schools in the South, while separate, were definitely not equal, as documented by photographs taken in South Carolina in the 1930s. Whites attended school in brick and stone buildings, while black students were relegated to unheated, overcrowded shacks with crude furniture, inadequate libraries, and underqualified teachers. In 1930 white schools in South Carolina received ten times more money than black schools.
By the 1950s little had changed, and many blacks, believing that the best hope for racial equality lay in education, looked to the NAACP to mount a concerted legal attack on school segregation. A modest beginning had already been made with the organization's victory in a 1938 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Missouri's grant of an out-of-state scholarship to keep a black student out of its law school denied the student equal protection under the law. After World War II, the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, under the leadership of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, set its sights on winning a case that would overturn the 1896 Plessy ruling. In 1951 the NAACP coordinated the filing of lawsuits challenging segregated schooling in South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Kansas.
The Kansas case—under whose name all five were eventually combined and docketed for rehearing by the Supreme Court—was the one that eventually earned a place in the history books. Oliver Brown and the parents of 12 other black children filed a lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education protesting the city's segregation of black and white students. Brown's eight-year-old daughter Linda was required to take a 21-block bus ride to an all-black school every day when there was a white school within three blocks of the Browns' house. The bus that Linda Brown took arrived at her school before it opened, leaving her waiting outside for half an hour on cold winter mornings. The NAACP argued that segregated schooling had a harmful psychological effect on black children, but the suit was dismissed on the grounds that no law had been broken, as Topeka was legally authorized by the state of Kansas to maintain separate schools for white and black students.
On December 9, 1952, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on all five of the cases on the Brown docket but postponed its ruling and requested a rehearing, which
The historic ruling was announced on May 17, 1954, by Chief Justice Warren. Stressing the fact that public education was "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms," Warren voiced the court's opinion that separating black children "from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." The crucial reversal of Plessy came in the most famous part of the ruling: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The Brown v. Board of Education ruling was jubilantly received by blacks across the nation, and a number of border states, as well as the District of Columbia, took rapid steps to desegregate their school systems. However, the states of the deep South used the gradual implementation decision, announced a year after the initial ruling, as a pretext for years of delay and defiance. The Court had left implementation up to state and local authorities, setting no firm deadlines for compliance and issuing instead the general guideline of a "prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance" and stating that desegregation should occur "with all deliberate speed." The southern states responded with hundreds of laws and resolutions that effectively blocked or limited desegregation. One popular tactic was the pupil-placement law, which gave local school authorities the prerogative of arbitrarily placing students in any school they chose, as long as they maintained that the placement was for psychological, academic, or any other purposes besides race. Other ways of circumventing the desegregation ruling included shutting down schools facing desegregation orders or providing tuition for students who chose to attend segregated private schools.
The southern states remained largely unchecked in their legislative resistance to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which received little support from the other branches of the federal government. Southern members of Congress openly incited their states to defy the ruling and even voiced their determination to have the decision reversed. President Eisenhower, a conservative president courting white southern voters, refused to express support for the Brown decision or lobby in any way for its enforcement. Privately, he voiced regret at his appointment of the Supreme Court justice who had been instrumental in obtaining the unanimous ruling.
Legal resistance to Brown was accompanied by harassment of black children who did attend newly desegregated schools, to the point that many parents gave up and reenrolled their children in all-black schools. Black children were attacked by shouting, rock-throwing mobs, mistreated by teachers, and tormented by their white classmates. In many communities there was a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities and growing membership in the White Citizens' Councils that were a more respectable version of the Klan. Resistance to integration led to a showdown between white extremists and the federal government in 1957 when President Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to disperse rioting white crowds preventing nine black students from entering Central High School.
In 1960 only one-sixth of 1% of southern black students attended a desegregated school. By 1964 this figure had risen to 2%, although two years later it remained under 1% for three states in the deep South. Nevertheless, thanks to federal civil rights legislation and tougher federal enforcement of desegregation guidelines, the 1960s eventually saw significant progress in southern desegregation: the number of black students attending desegregated schools rose to 16% in 1967, 20% in 1968, and 58% by 1970. In 1971 the Supreme Court gave district courts the authority to use busing for the desegregation of school systems. However, this measure was undermined by decisions later in the decade exempting suburban school districts from participation in efforts to desegregate city schools by busing.
Due to white flight from southern cities to the suburbs and from public to private schools, black enrollment in integrated schools had once again fallen to under 50% by 1980. In 1986 the Brown v. Board of Education case was reopened in Topeka on grounds that full integration of the school system had not been achieved. Plaintiffs charged that the school board had provided ways for white parents to avoid sending their children to integrated schools and had drawn boundaries that preserved racially segregated school districts. A federal court eventually ordered the city to produce an integration plan. The urban North had become increasingly segregated as well, with over 60% of black students attending schools that were virtually all-black. By the mid-1990s most black children in the nation still attended schools where less than half the students were white.
The Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education proved to be only one step in a long and arduous
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Huckaby, Elizabeth. Crisis at Central High: Little Rock, 1957-58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years. New York: Viking, 1987.