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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka


BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), decision on remedy, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), was the leading case of the five decided by the Supreme Court finding that segregation in public education violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The constitutionality of state laws requiring segregated schools seemed to be established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld a Louisiana law requiring "separate but equal" accommodations on railroads. Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, prepared the groundwork for the Brown decision in a series of cases in which the Supreme Court invalidated segregated education in graduate and professional schools because the segregated programs did not provide an equal education. Extending those precedents to secondary and elementary schools was a large step, because the justices believed maintaining segregated education was a central feature of the southern system of segregation as a whole.

Oliver Brown sued the Topeka, Kansas, school board because his daughter was denied admission to the school closest to the Brown home. The NAACP developed similar cases in Virginia, South Carolina, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, all of which the Supreme Court considered along with Brown. The lawyers for the African American plaintiffs and the school boards argued the cases twice before the Court reached its unanimous decision invalidating segregated education and casting doubt on Plessy v. Ferguson, which seemed to allow segregation in any public facility. Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion said that the Court could not "turn the clock back" to 1868, when the equal protection clause was adopted, or to 1896; that segregation could "affect the hearts and minds" of African American children "in a way unlikely ever to be undone"; and that schools segregated by law could never be equal.

The Court then asked the lawyers to argue the cases a third time to determine what the proper remedy for the unconstitutional system should be. Rejecting the NAACP's arguments for immediate desegregation, the Court, again unanimously, directed the lower courts to supervise desegregation plans that would begin the process immediately and then proceed "with all deliberate speed." Some school boards, particularly in the border states, complied with court orders rather quickly, but desegregation faced resistance in the Deep South. Not until after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did the Deep South implement substantial desegregation.


Patterson, James T. "Brown v. Board of Education": A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tushnet, Mark V. Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936–1961. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Mark V.Tushnet

See alsoCivil Rights Act of 1964 ; Desegregation ; Plessy v. Ferguson .

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