Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

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Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 47 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, was the most significant of a series of judicial decisions overturning segregation laws—laws that separate whites and blacks. Reversing its 1896 decision in plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, which established the "separate-but-equal" doctrine that found racial segregation to be constitutional, the Court unanimously decided in Brown that laws separating children by race in different schools violated the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment, which provides that "[n]o state shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws." In making its decision, the Court declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Moreover, the Court found that segregated schools promote in African American children a harmful and irreparable sense of inferiority that damages not only their lives but the welfare of U.S. society as a whole.

The principle expressed in Brown was used in later decisions of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts to reverse segregation in other fields as well. By the end of the 1960s, laws that had required racial segregation in buses, trains, bathrooms, and other public places had been overturned, as had many other laws that obstructed the rights of African Americans. Brown thus served as a milestone in the struggle of African Americans to gain equal civil rights in U.S. society. It also symbolized the judicial activism of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice earl warren, who would go on to lead the Court until 1969 in a remarkable era of change with regard to civil rights.

Brown was actually the culmination of a decades-long struggle by both African Americans and sympathetic whites against segregation and other discriminatory laws. Though it is a given in the early 2000s that persons of all races should enjoy equality under the law in the United States, that has not been the case for most of the country's history. Even after the Civil War had ended and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments had outlawed slavery and guaranteed the civil rights of "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" (U.S. Const. amend. XIV), southern states and localities established the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws—also known as the Black Codes—to keep African Americans from enjoying legal equality with whites. The term Jim Crow derives from a popular minstrel song of the nineteenth century. These laws made it difficult or impossible for African Americans to vote, made it illegal for them to use the same public facilities as whites, restricted their travel, forbade interracial marriage, and otherwise attempted to keep African Americans in a state of dependence and inferiority with regard to whites. Most of these laws were passed after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, when the military occupation of the South had ended and the radical wing of the republican party, which under President abraham lincoln had been instrumental in dismantling slavery, had declined in power. By the mid-1870s, southern whites were again in political control of their region, and many quickly sought to return blacks to a position of legal inferiority through passage of discriminatory laws.

In 1896 the legal standing of the jim crow laws was strengthened when, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute requiring blacks and whites to occupy separate railway cars. The law in question, according to the Court, was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities provided for each race were separate but equal. Moreover, the Court voiced its disagreement with attempts to challenge segregation laws and with the ideas critics of segregation used to support those challenges. For example, in its opinion, the Court considered it a "fallacy" that "the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority," and it scoffed at the notion that "social prejudices may be overcome by legislation. "Ironically, the Court reinforced its decision to uphold the legality of segregation on rail cars by noting the existence of laws "requiring separate schools for colored children." The Plessy decision and its separate-but-equal doctrine were later used to uphold segregation in public schools and other public facilities.

African Americans and others who sympathized with their cause were bitterly disappointed by the Plessy decision. Over a decade later, in 1909, some blacks and whites joined together to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), which would eventually coordinate a successful legal challenge to the Plessy ruling. The NAACP brought together people of all races in an effort to improve the situation of people of color. Although the NAACP achieved some victories in the fight against Jim Crow laws in the first two decades of its existence, it was not until 1935 that the organization began actively to mount a campaign against segregation in schools. It did so assisted by legal counsels charles houston and william h. hastie, and a young assistant, thurgood marshall, who would go on to be a member of the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.

By 1939, Marshall had become head of the NAACP legal branch, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and by the early 1950s, he and his organization had argued and secured significant legal victories before the Supreme Court that helped set the stage for Brown. In Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 70 S. Ct. 848, 94 L. Ed. 1114 (1950), the Court sided with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when it ruled that a separate law school for blacks in Texas could not provide an education equal to that available to whites at the more established University of Texas Law School. And in another case brought by Marshall's organization, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637, 70 S. Ct. 851, 94 L. Ed. 1149 (1950), the Court ruled that separate library and lecture hall seats for a single black graduate student were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, neither case addressed the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy.

In 1952 Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought two more significant cases

to the Supreme Court: Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 74 S. Ct. 693, 98 L. Ed. 884 (1954), which dealt with racial segregation of schools in the District of Columbia, and Brown, which was actually a consolidation of four class action suits (suits brought to court on behalf of a group of people) from federal district courts in Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought the cases to court on behalf of African American children who were refused admission to schools attended by white children as a result of laws allowing or requiring racial segregation in schools. The plaintiff named in the case, Oliver Brown, had a daughter, Linda Brown, who had been denied admission to an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because she was black. In all but the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court had decided against the African American children and in favor of the school districts, citing as precedent the Plessy separate-but-equal doctrine. In the Delaware case, the state supreme court also upheld this doctrine but ordered that black children be sent to superior white schools until schools provided for blacks could be improved to an equal condition.

Brown was argued before the Court in 1952 and reargued in 1953. Marshall, in making his statement before the Court, argued that the statutes in question in this case were equivalent to the black codes. He pointed out the contradictions in allowing blacks and whites to vote in the same places and attend the same colleges and universities, but not allowing black and white children to attend the same elementary schools. He also maintained that a decision in favor of segregation would effectively be a decision to keep African Americans as near as possible to their former state of slavery. According to Marshall, such a decision would be equivalent to saying that "Negroes are inferior to all other human beings."

Oliver Brown and the NAACP

As the man whose name appeared in the title of perhaps the most influential U.S. Supreme Court decision ever, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), Oliver Brown was an unlikely hero for the civil rights movement. The African American welder, war veteran, and assistant pastor was a quiet, upstanding citizen of Topeka, Kansas, who had never been known to publicly oppose discrimination against his race. However, he took a decisive stand against racial discrimination when he joined one dozen other African American parents in filing suit for the right of their children to attend the elementary schools of Topeka alongside white children.

Brown's participation in the lawsuit was encouraged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp), which provided necessary legal expertise and organization for the case. Long familiar with the practice of school segregation in Topeka and many other school districts, NAACP lawyers approached Brown and other parents in the summer of 1950 to see if they would join them in a case that challenged that practice.

It was precisely Oliver Brown's modest qualities that made the NAACP choose him as a plaintiff. His reputation for integrity could help mute criticism in a controversial case that stirred up angry emotions in both the white and black communities of Topeka. The city's white majority was largely content to remain with a school system that maintained eighteen all-white elementary schools and four all-black elementary schools. African Americans, meanwhile, feared the case would cause the white community to attack what few civil rights they already possessed. Others could not become involved in such a controversy without the fear of losing their jobs with white employers. For that reason, very few African Americans in Topeka actually belonged to the NAACP.

Like many other African American parents, Brown was upset that his daughter had to travel a long distance to an all-black school when an all-white school was located much nearer their home. He also could not help but notice that the all-white schools were in better repair than the all-black schools. Brown agreed to join in the NAACP's case, and in September 1950, he tried unsuccessfully to register one of his three daughters, Linda Brown, in an all-white school only seven blocks from their house. When the case first came to the U.S. District Court for Kansas in June 1951, Brown testified that his daughter had to travel twenty-one blocks to an all-black school, part of the way through a dangerous railroad switching yard.

In the end, African Americans did not seek to end the system of segregation in public schools merely to have their children travel fewer miles to class or sit in nicer buildings. At stake were much more important issues that affected their status in U.S. society. As expressed by NAACP attorneys in later testimony before the Supreme Court, African Americans had come to see segregated schools as inherently unequal. These schools relegated African Americans to an inferior class, instilled feelings of insecurity, diminished their opportunities, and retarded their mental development. The victory eventually achieved in Brown would go a long way toward eliminating those harmful effects of segregation and guaranteeing African Americans their full constitutional rights.

john w. davis, who was legal counsel for the state of South Carolina, argued in his closing remarks that the state had honored Plessy's separate-but-equal doctrine through large investments in schools for black students. He claimed that the state had the intention of creating a condition of equality for children of all races and that "the happiness, the progress and the welfare of these children is best promoted in segregated schools." He also maintained that it was not within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court to decide how the state of South Carolina conducted its school system. He told the Court:

Your Honors do not sit, and cannot sit as a glorified Board of Education for the State of South Carolina or any other state….

… Neither this Court nor any other court … can sit in the chairs of the legislature of South Carolina and mold its educational system, and if it is found to be in its present form unacceptable, the State of South Carolina must devise the alternative.

On the same day that the Court handed down its decision in Brown, it decided the related case of Bolling. Applying the same principles that it had used in Brown, the Court ruled in Bolling that racial segregation of schoolchildren in the District of Columbia was unconstitutional.

In the following year, the Supreme Court on reargument made another decision in Brown that was designed to establish the methodology by which to enforce desegregation of public schools. Brown II, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955), as it has come to be called, determined that school authorities had the principal responsibility for evaluating and solving local educational problems, including those resulting from segregation. The Court decided to remand (send back) the individual cases in Brown to lower courts in order that those courts might better assess the efforts of school authorities to desegregate the public schools and thereby provide to African American children their equal protection under the laws as promised by the Fourteenth Amendment. The lower courts were directed to take into account any problems concerning school administration, facilities, transportation, and personnel, and to consider any revision of local laws necessary to resolve the problems and achieve desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education dealt only with government-mandated or government-authorized segregation. It did not apply to racial segregation or discrimination related to restaurants, theaters, employment, country clubs, or other parts of the private sector. However, Brown fostered changes in the legal and moral outlook of the country that greatly aided future efforts to end racial discrimination as related to

employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, and thus greatly affected U.S. race relations.

Despite the promise of Brown, desegregation of U.S. schools proceeded slowly. In the years immediately following the decision, many southern school districts resisted or delayed implementation of its desegregation requirements, thereby forcing the Supreme Court and other lower courts to oversee and supervise school administrative functions in many localities. As time went on and southern schools became more integrated, the Court shifted its focus to school districts all over the country, particularly those in cities. In the second half of the twentieth century, many African Americans moved from rural to urban areas, often in the northern states. School districts in many of those urban areas became separated into suburban white districts and urban black districts. In response to this challenge, courts imposed busing requirements during the 1970s: in the interest of creating more racially balanced schools, children were bused to different schools that were sometimes far from their home neighborhoods. In many cities, busing became highly controversial.

By the late 1980s, legal battles surrounding the legacy of the Brown decision changed when some school districts began to request that they be released from the court supervision of their operations that had been required by Brown. Accordingly, the Supreme Court began to focus on the issue of when a court order to desegregate a school district should be dissolved and autonomy returned to the local school officials and community. In Board of Education v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 111 S. Ct. 630, 112 L. Ed. 2d 715 (1991), which dealt with a court-imposed desegregation plan in Oklahoma City, the Court ruled that a court-ordered desegregation decree may be dissolved when a school district shows that it has taken all "practicable" steps to end a state-imposed dual school system and demonstrates that it is unlikely to revert to its former ways. The ability to dissolve a court-ordered desegregation plan, the Court's opinion stated, would enable a school district that had attempted to achieve the goal of desegregation to avoid "judicial tutelage for the indefinite future."

Justice Marshall, now near the end of his career on the Court, dissented from the majority opinion in Dowell. He argued that, given the long history of segregation, it was too early to leave the Oklahoma City school district to its own devices. Though he agreed that perpetual federal judicial supervision of local schools had never been envisioned by the Court, he feared that the Court's decision in this case would simply perpetuate an already unsatisfactory standard of integration in the Oklahoma City school district and in other school districts.

In another case, Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 112 S. Ct. 1430, 118 L. Ed. 2d 108 (1992), the Supreme Court held that district courts may relinquish supervision and control of school districts in incremental stages, before full compliance has been achieved in every facet of school operations. The Court also ruled that once a school district corrects any racial imbalance that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the district has no obligation to remedy a later imbalance caused by population shifts.

As these cases indicate, the issue of desegregation of public schools remained a vital public issue even several decades after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown. As a means of both training and socialization, education is still a necessity for U.S. society as a whole and for any individual in particular, and it is expected to remain so in the future. Guided by Brown, the U.S. judicial system has decisively concluded that the constitutional provision of equal protection under the laws guarantees that children be entitled to an equal, not a separate, public education.

further readings

Balkin, Jack M., and Bruce Ackerman, et al., eds., 2001. What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Landmark Civil Rights Decision. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Hunt, James L. 2001. "Brown v. Board of Education After Fifty Years: Context and Synopsis." Mercer Law Review 52 (winter).

Irons, Peter H. 2002. Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking.

Klein, Dora W. 2002. "Beyond Brown v. Board of Education: The Need to Remedy the Achievement Gap." The Journal of Law and Education 31 (October).

Kluger, Richard. 1975. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.

Levine, Ellen, ed. 1994. Freedom's Children. New York: Avon Flare.

Miller, LaMar P., ed. 1986. Brown Plus Thirty: Perspective on Desegregation. New York: Metropolitan Center for Educational Research, New York Univ. Press.

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

Pollack, Jack. 1979. Earl Warren: The Judge Who Changed America. Upper Saddle, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Weinburg, Meyer. 1967. Race and Place: A Legal History of the Neighborhood School. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Whitman, Mark, ed. 1993. Removing a Badge of Slavery: The Record of Brown v. Board of Education. Princeton, N.J.: Wiener.

Wilkinson, J. Harvie III. 1979. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954–1978. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


"Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas" (Appendix, Primary Document); Civil Rights; Discrimination; Equal Protection; Jim Crow Laws; Marshall, Thurgood; NAACP; Republican Party; School Desegregation; Warren, Earl; Warren Court.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

views updated May 11 2018

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

Brown (347 U.S. 483 [1954]) was the most important legal case affecting African Americans in the twentieth century and unquestionably one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in U.S. constitutional history. Although directly involving segregated public schools, the case became the legal underpinning for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the dismantling of all forms of statutory segregation.

Brown combined separate cases from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware that turned on the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that states not deny their citizens "equal protection of the law." The Court also heard a similar case from Washington, D.C., Bolling v. Sharpe, which involved the meaning of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause.

In 1954 laws in eighteen states plus the District of Columbia mandated segregated schools, while other states allowed school districts to maintain separate schools if they wanted to do so. Although theoretically guaranteeing blacks "separate-but-equal" education, segregated schools were never equal for blacks. Linda Brown, whose father, Rev. Oliver Brown, sued the Topeka, Kansas, school system on her behalf, had to travel an hour and twenty minutes to school each way. If her bus was on time, she was dropped off at school a half hour before it opened. Her bus stop was six blocks from her home, across a hazardous railroad yard; her school was twenty-one blocks from her home. The neighborhood school her white playmates attended was only seven blocks from her home and required neither bus nor hazardous crossings to reach. The Brown companion cases presented segregation at its worst. Statistics from Clarendon, South Carolina, where one of the cases began, illustrate the inequality of separate but equal. In 1949 and 1950 the average expenditure for white students was 179 dollars, but for blacks it was only 43 dollars. The county's 6,531 black students attended school in 61 buildings valued at 194,575 dollars; many of these schools lacked indoor plumbing or heating. The 2,375 white students in the county attended school in twelve buildings worth 673,850 dollars, with far superior facilities. Teachers in the black schools received, on average, salaries that were one-third less than those of teachers in the white schools. Finally, Clarendon provided school buses for white students in this rural county but refused to provide them for blacks.

The plaintiffs could easily have won orders requiring state officials to equalize the black schools on the grounds that education was separate but not equal. Since the 1930s the Court had been chipping away at segregation in higher education, interstate transportation, housing, and voting. In Brown the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by Thur-good Marshall, decided to directly challenge the whole idea of segregation in schools.

Marshall's bold challenge of segregation per se led the Court to reconsider older cases, especially Plessy v. Ferguson, that had upheld segregation. The Court was also compelled to consider the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been written at a time when most states allowed some forms of segregation and when public education was undeveloped in the South. The Court ordered attorneys for both sides to present briefs and reargument on these historical matters. In the end the Court found the historical argument to be at best inconclusive. The most avid proponents of the postCivil War amendments undoubtedly intended them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Their opponents, just as certainly, were antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments. What others in Congress and the state legislatures had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

After reviewing the histories of the Fourteenth Amendment, public education, and segregation, Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for a unanimous Court, concluded, "In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation." Warren found that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal." Brown did not technically overturn Plessy (which involved seating on railroads) or the separate-but-equal doctrine. But that technicality was unimportant. Brown signaled the end to the legality of segregation. Within a dozen years the Supreme Court would strike down all vestiges of legalized segregation.

Brown did not, however, lead to an immediate end to segregated education. The Court instead ordered new arguments for the next year to determine how to begin the difficult social process of desegregating schools. The NAACP urged immediate desegregation. However, in a second case, known as Brown II (1955), the Court ordered its mandate implemented with "all deliberate speed," a process that turned out to be extraordinarily slow. Linda Brown, for example, did not attend integrated schools until junior high; none of the plaintiff children in the Clarendon County case ever attended integrated schools.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Fourteenth Amendment; Marshall, Thurgood; Plessy v. Ferguson


Robert J. Cottrol, et al. Brown v Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Race Law and American History, vol. 7, The Struggle for Equal Education. New York: Garland, 1992.

Finkelman, Paul. "Civil Rights in Historical Context: In Defense of Brown." Harvard Law Review 118 (2005): 973-1027.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice. New York: Vintage, 1975.

Tushnet, Mark. The NAACP's Campaign against Segregated Education. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

paul finkelman (1996)
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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

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