Brown v. Board of Education: 1954

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Brown v. Board of Education: 1954

Appellants: Several parents of African-American children of elementary school age in Topeka, Kansas
Defendant Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
Appellants Claim: That the segregation of white and African-American children in the public schools of Topeka solely on the basis of race denied the African-American children equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment
Chief Defense Lawyers: Harold R. Fatzer and Paul E. Wilson
Chief Lawyers for Appellants: Robert L. Carter, Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood W. Robinson, and Charles S. Scott
Justices: Hugo L. Black, Harold H. Burton, Thomas C. Clark, William 0.Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Sherman Minton, Stanley F. Reed, and Earl Warren
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: May17, 1954
Decision: Segregated schools violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

SIGNIFICANCE: Brown v. Board of Education held that segregated schools were unconstitutional, overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Sometimes in history, events of great importance happen unexpectedly to modest men. Such was the case with Oliver Brown, whose desire that his children be able to attend the public school closest to their home resulted in a fundamental transformation of race relations in the United States.

Brown was born in 1919 and lived in Topeka, Kansas, where he worked as a welder for a railroad. Brown's family literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks: their house was close to Brown's place of work, and the neighborhood bordered on a major switchyard. Not only could the Brown family hear the trains day and night, but because the Topeka school system was segregated, the Brown children had to walk through the switchyard to get to the black school a mile away. There was another school only seven blocks away, but it was exclusively for white children.

In September 1950, when his daughter Linda was to enter the third grade, Brown took her to the whites-only school and tried to enroll her. Brown had no history of racial activism, and outside of work his only major activity was serving as an assistant pastor in the local church. He was simply tired of seeing his daughter being forced to go through the switchyard to go to a school far from home because she was black. The principal of the white school refused to enroll Brown's daughter. Brown sought help from McKinley Burnett, head of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

NAACP Takes on Topeka Board of Education

Burnett's organization had wanted to challenge segregation for quite some time, but until Brown came to them they had never had the right plaintiff at the right time. Segregation, in the public schools and elsewhere, was a fact of life in Topeka as in so many other places and few were willing to challenge it. Now that he had Brown, who was joined by several other black parents in Topeka with children in blacks-only public schools, Burnett and the NAACP decided that the time was ripe for legal action.

On March 22, 1951, Brown's NAACP lawyers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, requesting an injunction forbidding Topeka from continuing to segregate its public schools. The court tried the case June 25-26, 1951. Brown and the other black parents testified to the fact that their children were denied admission to white schools. One parent, Silas Fleming, explained why he and the other parents wanted to get their children into the white schools:

It wasn't to cast any insinuations that our teachers are not capable of teaching our children because they are supreme, extremely intelligent and are capable of teaching my kids or white kids or black kids. But my point was that not only I and my children are craving light: the entire colored race is craving light, and the only way to reach the light is to start our children together in their infancy and they come up together.

Next, the court listened to expert witnesses who testified that segregated schools were inherently unequal because separation sent a message to black children that they were inferior. This stigma could never be eliminated from a segregated school system, as Dr. Hugh W. Speer, chairman of the University of Kansas City's department of elementary school education, testified:

For example, if the colored children are denied the experience in school of associating with white children, who represent 90 percent of our national society in which these colored children must live, then the colored child's curriculum is being greatly curtailed. The Topeka curriculum or any school curriculum cannot be equal under segregation.

The Board of Education's lawyers retorted that since most restaurants, bathrooms and public facilities in Kansas City also were segregated, segregated schools were only preparing black children for the realities of life as black adults. Segregation pervaded every aspect of life in Topeka as in so many other places, and it was beyond the court's jurisdiction to act on anything in this one lawsuit but the legality of school segregation. The board's argument did not convince the judges. The board was assuming that segregation was a natural and desirable way of life for the races to live.

Next, the board argued that segregated schools did not necessarily result in any detrimental effect. After all, hadn't Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver, among other great African-Americans, achieved so much in the face of obstacles far worse than segregated educational facilities? The fallacy in this argument was obvious, however. While some exceptional people were capable of rising above any adversity, for the majority of African-Americans the discriminatory effect of segregation meant a lessening of opportunities. Dr. Horace B. English, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, testified:

There is a tendency for us to live up to, or perhaps I should say down to, social expectations and to learn what people say we can learn, and legal segregation definitely depresses the Negro's expectancy and is therefore prejudicial to his learning.

On August 3, 1951, the court issued its decision. The three judges noted that the leading Supreme Court opinion on public school segregation was the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. (See separate entry.) Plessy legitimized the doctrine of "separate but equal" school systems for blacks and whites, and Plessy had not been overturned by the Supreme Court or even seriously questioned, despite some nibbling away at the doctrine's edges in a few recent cases. Therefore, regardless of the experts' testimony that separate-but-equal schools were inherently impossible, the court felt compelled to deny Brown and the other plaintiffs their request for an injunction. The court made it clear, however, that it did not relish its role in upholding Topeka's segregation:

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

Fight Goes to Supreme Court

On October 1, 1951, the plaintiffs filed a petition for appeal. Under certain special procedural rules, they were able to go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court instead of going through a federal court of appeals. On June 9, 1952, the Supreme Court put the case on its docket and consolidated it with several other cases from across the country where school segregation policies were being challenged. The Court scheduled a hearing for December 9, 1952, in Washington, D.C., during which the plaintiffs and the board of education would present their arguments.

Harold R. Fatzer and Paul E. Wilson represented the board. Brown and the other plaintiffs had a number of attorneys representing them at both the trial in the district court and now before the Supreme Court, all sponsored by the NAACP. The chief plaintiffs' lawyers were Robert L. Carter, Thurgood Marshall, Spottswood W. Robinson, and Charles S. Scott. The Supreme Court justices were Hugo L. Black, Harold H. Burton, Thomas C. Clark, William 0. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Sherman Minton, Stanley F. Reed, and Earl Warren.

The December 9, 1952, hearing ended in a stalemate. After listening to both sides reiterate the arguments they had made before the district court, the Supreme Court ordered another hearing, to take place December 8, 1953. The Court directed the parties to confine their re-argument to certain specific issues that especially concerned the justices, dealing mostly with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment by the states in 1868. Since the plaintiffs' lawsuit rested on the equal protection clause of this amendment, the Court wanted to know more about the circumstances surrounding the Amendment's adoption. For example, the Court was interested in the debates in Congress and in the state legislatures, the views of the proponents and opponents of the amendment, and existing segregation practices. Although the NAACP, Brown and the other plaintiffs were disappointed that their case would be on hold for another year, the Court's order for re-argument signaled its willingness to reconsider the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy.

Court Throws Out Plessy; Declares Segregation Illegal

After the December 8, 1953, re-argument, the Court announced its decision on May 17, 1954. According to the published opinion, the re-argument had not revealed anything that shed light on whether the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment had been specifically intended to preclude segregated schools:

Even in the North, the conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states; and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on public education.

Instead, the Court endorsed the plaintiffs' central thesis that segregation was inherently unequal no matter how much effort the school system made to ensure that black and white schools had equivalent facilities, staffing, books, buses, and so forth. The Court reviewed some recent cases in which it had cautiously made an exception to Plessy where certain graduate schools were involved. In those cases, the Court said that segregation was unequal because the blacks' professional careers were hurt by the stigma of having attended schools considered to be inferior, and where they did not have the opportunity to make contacts or have intellectual discourse with their white counterparts. With this support, the Court was ready to declare that all segregation in public schools was unconstitutional:

We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

After nearly 60 years of legalized discrimination, the Court had thrown out Plessy v. Ferguson. It would take 20 years for the Court's decision to be fully implemented, however, long after Oliver Brown died in 1961. In 1955, the Court said that all American school systems must desegregate "with all deliberate speed," but most local schools in the South did nothing until they were brought to court one by one. The process dragged on throughout the rest of the 1950s, during the '60s, and into the early '70s. Meanwhile, particularly during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Court acted to strike down all the other forms of legal segregation in American society, from bus stations and public libraries to restrooms.

The process was painful and often violent, frequently accompanied by federal intervention and mass demonstrations. By the 1970s, however, legal desegregation was a fact. Brown v. Board of Education not only made it possible to demolish segregated public school systems, but it was the landmark that served as a catalyst for further antidiscrimination decision by the Supreme Court.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

"The Day Race Relations Changed Forever: U.S. Supreme Court Desegregation Decision of May17, 1954 Was Hailed by Many as the 'Second Emancipation Proclamation.'" Ebony (May 1985): 108-112.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: the History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Orlich, Donald C. "Brown v. Board of Education: Time for a Reassessment." Phi Delta Kappan (April1991): 631-632.

Sudo, Phil. "Five Little People Who Changed U.S. History." Scholastic Update (January 1990): 8-10.

White, Jack E. "The Heirs of Oliver Brown." Time (July 6, 1987): 88-89.

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Brown v. Board of Education: 1954

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Brown v. Board of Education: 1954