Brown V. Board of Education, 1954

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Brown V. Board of Education, 1954








Legal segregation under Jim Crow was a social system that whites developed after the abolition of slavery. Jim Crows primary function was to continue the social system of servitude, the racial caste hierarchy, and the economic control of African Americans. After 1896 all aspects of public accommodations, such as transportation, schools, hotels, and parks, were legally segregated in the United States. The legal segregation laws declared that African Americans could not vote, testify against whites, or serve on juries and could attend only segregated schools, orphanages, and hospitals. According to Joe Feagin, The legal and informal Jim Crow practices meant racial subordination and an imposed badge of degradation on all African Americans in many areas of the United States (Feagin 2006, p. 123).

In southern states and some northern states legal segregation operated like the system of slavery it replaced. Segregated government agencies exercised extreme control over every aspect of the lives of African Americans. Exploitation and oppression were enshrined by racial violence and discrimination in foundational legal, economic, and social institutions. Numerous challenges to segregated public schools were made before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ended up in the Supreme Court. Peter Irons notes that the first challenge to segregated public schools began in 1849 with a lawsuit filed in Boston by Benjamin Roberts, after his five-year-old daughter, Sarah, was turned away from the primary school nearest her home on the ground of her being a colored person (Irons 2002, p. ix). The court decided it was best that she continue to attend a segregated school. This Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision preceded the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case of Homer Plessy, an African American man, who refused to sit in the colored section on a train, which reinforced local U.S. segregation laws. The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) paved the way for segregation by affirming that separate facilities for blacks and whites could be separate but equal, including racially segregated public schools. The U.S. Constitution and federal court decisions created contemporary forms of the racist institutions functioning in the early twenty-first century.

According to Derrick Bell (2004), in the years leading up to the Roberts and Brown cases, there were pressures from leaders and protestors in the black civil rights movement to end legal segregation. Using a strategy that focused on exposing the actual racial inequality that existed in educational institutions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston had successfully litigated several cases that led to desegregation in graduate schools. These successes were the inspiration that led them to attempt to dismantle all official segregation in the educational system by arguing that racially segregated schools could never be equal. Marshall combined several cases from states in which racially segregated education was mandated by law, and these cases led to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) (Kluger 2004).


Brown v. Board of Education combined five cases: Belton v. Gebhardt (1951) in Delaware, Brown v. Board of Education (1951) in Kansas, Briggs v. Elliott (1947) in South Carolina, Davis v. Prince Edwards County School Board (1951) in Virginia, and Bolling v. Sharpe (1951) in the District of Columbia. Even though Brown was a class-action suit, Oliver L. Brown, the father of the third-grader Linda Brown, was named as the first plaintiff in the case. Several attorneys were instrumental in the successful litigation of the case, including Robert L. Carter, Marshall, Spottswood W. Robinson, Houston, Charles S. Scott, Louis L. Redding, Charles Bledsoe, Jack Greenberg, George E. C. Hayes, James M. Nabrit, Harold P. Boulware, Oliver W. Hill, and George M. Johnson. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund worked with scholars such as John A. Davis, Kenneth Clark, John Hope Franklin, and C. Vann Woodward to formulate a strong argument against the separate-but-equal doctrine.

In 1954 the landmark decision in Brown overturned the infamous separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision was based on the tireless work of African American men, women, and children, including members of the NAACP. Irons notes that once parents of African American children in South Carolina, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and Kansas bravely challenged legal segregation in public schools, at great personal risk to themselves and their families, the Supreme Court finally agreed to decide whether school segregation violated the Constitutions promise that every Americanblack or whitewill receive the equal protection of the laws (Irons 2002, p. xi).


At the center of the Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483, 495 decision are the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren: We conclude that in the field of public education 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 brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (Feagin 2004, p. 68).

Warren specifically focused and based his decision to end school segregation on the social science research of Clark, who showed that when given a choice, black children viewed white dolls as superior to black dolls. Fundamentally the finding of the Clark research project showed that there was deep psychological damage done to the psyche of black children who were forced to attend segregated schools. The Brown decision impacted school systems and changed American institutions forever. It focused on the public school systems, but its effects reached far beyond the educational institutions. According to Bell, for months following the Brown decision, African Americans participated in organized acts of resistance against other public facilities that were segregated, such as buses and restaurants. The elected white officials of local communities refused to desegregate public facilities, and the violent white responses to peaceful protestors were televised regularly for the entire world to witness. In addition to publications and the Voice of America broadcasts, the government encouraged and often sponsored Black leaders to travel to foreign countries and convey positive reports about race relations (Bell 2004, pp. 6061).

The United States was painfully cognizant of the fact that foreign countries such as Russia were utilizing the heightened racial violence to encourage African Americans to join Communist forces against the country that was denying them their civil rights. Ironically, an unforeseen benefit of the Brown decision was that it mobilized ordinary white citizens, who were horrified by the display on television of brutal attacks against peaceful black civil rights protestorsin most instances women and childrenand who joined in public resistance against segregation.


James Patterson (2001) points out that African American men and women who were involved in the civil rights movement were inspired by the 1954 Brown decision. With the support of liberal whites, African Americans began to fight harder for their civil rights in hopes that legal segregation would finally come to an end. After the Brown decision, African Americans organized sit-ins, boycotts, and demonstrations to end legal segregation. The civil rights movement was heroic. it inspired even higher expectations than Brown had in 1954 (Patterson 2001, p. xxi). Bell affirms this point: Brown was the primary force and provided a vital inspirational spark in the postWorld War II civil rights movement. Defenders maintain Brown served as an important encouragement for the Montgomery bus boycotters, and that it served as a key symbol of cultural advancement for the nation (Bell 2004, p. 130).


Bell notes that Warren used extremely ambiguous language in his ruling, stating that because of the wide applicability of this decision, and because of the great variety of local conditions, the formulation of decrees in these cases present problems of considerable complexity (Bell 2004, p. 18). With these words, the Court postponed ordering any immediate action and ordered the plaintiffs to return to court later to address the issue of implementation.

Consequently the 1954 Brown decision had to be revisited one year later. But even after the courts revisited the issue of implementation, the Supreme Court never provided a specific legal remedy for the desegregation of schools. White southerners objected to the ruling of the Supreme Court and violently resisted the integration of the public school system. Furthermore the consensus in the local courts and among the general white public was that school desegregation could not be achieved. The Supreme Court faced resistance from local legislative and executive levels of government. Seeming to fear the threat of mass resistance to its ruling in Brown, the Supreme Court in the Brown II decision issued an extremely vague directive holding that the implementation of desegregation plans must be conducted with all deliberate speed.


In 1935 W. E. B. Du Bois expressed grave concerns about the possible outcomes of black children going to white schools where white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and resented the dark child and literally rendered its life a living hell (Du Bois 1935, p. 330). There was no consensus in the African American community about how to proceed with ensuring that their children had schools and resources that were equal to those of white children. A separate Negro school, where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers whose sole claim to superiority is ability to kick niggers when they are down (Du Bois 1935, p. 335).

African American community leaders, parents, and the NAACP worried about the future of their teachers, schools, and universities, and they initially fought to ensure that their institutions were equal to white schools (Patterson 2001). However, in 1950, after much debate within the NAACP Marshall [dared] to demand the demolition of Jim Crow in the schools (Patterson 2001, p. 7).

There have been numerous discussions among scholars who question the success of school integration, the possibility of Marshall and his attorneys fighting for separate-but-equal instead of fighting for school integration, and the possible outcomes for African American children. Many parents who attended integrated schools feel positively about the benefits they received and feel good about their children attending integrated schools. The lives of millions of Americans, white and black, have been profoundly influenced by the Brown decision. The failure of the federal and state courts to preserve the gains since Brown v. Board of Education is as deeply troubling as the false notion that segregated schools are more beneficial for children (Boger and Orfield 2005).


In the early twenty-first century public schools are more racially segregated. The Harvard Civil Rights Project (2006) reports that more than 70 percent of African American students attend public schools that are overwhelmingly nonwhite. There have been significant challenges against affirmative action in federal and state courts. According to Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee of the Harvard Civil Rights Project:

Since the Supreme Court authorized a return to segregated neighborhood schools in 1991 [ Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowel (1991)], the percentage of black students attending majority nonwhite schools increased in all regions from 66 percent in 1991 to 73 percent in 2003-2004. Over the twelve-year period, the percent of Southern black students in majority non-white schools rose from 61 percent to 71 percent, and the percent of black students in such schools grew from 59 to 69 percent in the Border States. (Orfield and Lee 2006, pp. 910)

In 2006 the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. Based on the Supreme Courts decision, these cases could overturn Brown. The two cases focus on the right of public schools to decide, in their efforts to promote diversity, where children should go to school based on their race. The white parents in both cases want their children to go to their neighborhood schools. In response to the Supreme Courts agreement to hear these cases, over 500 social scientists signed a statement urging the Supreme Court to allow American public schools to maintain their ongoing efforts to diversify public schools. Crystal Meredith, the mother of one of the students and the person who filed the Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education lawsuit, thinks that a policy that color codes any child denigrates and damages that childs self-esteem (Benac 2006). The issue of self-esteem, self-worth, and feeling inferior was a central part of the doll research conducted by Clark that was instrumental in the 1954 Supreme Court decision.

Margaret Beale Spencer (1982, 1984), however, criticized Clark and his doll studies research. She conducted extensive research into the relationship between identity and the self-esteem of African American children. Her findings indicate that even though preschoolers show majority group racial attitudes[,] eighty percent of the sample obtained positive self-concept scores, while demonstrating pro-white biased cultural values on a racial attitude and preference measure (Spencer 1984, p. 440). Therefore the children in the Clark doll study who chose the white doll were not necessarily demonstrating that their self-esteem was damaged or that they felt inferior because they picked the white doll. Spencer felt that black children chose the white doll because they knew it was valued by society. Even the Clarks found that seven-year old black children had largely shifted in preference behavior; they more frequently preferred the black dolls (Harpalani 2004, p. 6).

In the 1940s some scholars criticized the implementation of Clarks test and the difference in the aesthetics of the dolls. Since black dolls were difficult if not impossible to find in the 1940s, the white doll was more aesthetically appealing and thus one of the reasons black children picked it (Harpalani 2004). However, in 2005 the high school student Kiri Davis created a video, A Girl like Me, that demonstrated that young African American children are still choosing the white doll over the black doll, even though both dolls are aesthetically similar. Indeed there was not a consensus in the African American community about what to do in the 1950s, and there is not a consensus in the early twenty-first century about the success of Brown v. Board of Education in assuring quality education for black children.

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1955; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Civil Rights, Cold War; Clark, Kenneth B.; Cold War; Desegregation; Desegregation, School; Integration; Marshall, Thurgood; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Schooling in the USA; Segregation; Separate-but-Equal; Supreme Court, U.S.; Warren, Earl


Bell, Derrick. 2004. Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

Benac, Nancy. 2006. High Court to Hear School Diversity Case. Washington Post, December 2: A4.

Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237. 1991.

Boger, John Charles, and Gary Orfield, eds. 2005. School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 495. 1954.

Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294. 1955.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1935. Does the Negro Need Separate Schools? Journal of Negro Education 4 (3): 328335.

Feagin, Joe. 2004. Heeding Black Voices: The Court, Brown, and Challenges in Building a Multiracial Democracy. University of Pittsburgh Law Review 66: 5781.

Feagin, Joe. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.

Harpalani, Vinay. 2004. Simple Justice or Complex Injustice? American Racial Dynamics and the Ironies of Brown and Grutter. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education 3 (1): 114.

Irons, Peter. 2002. Jim Crows Children : The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Penguin.

Kluger, Richard. 2004. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black Americas Struggle for Equality. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf.

Orfield, Gary, and Chungmei Lee. 2006. Racial Transformation and the Changing Nature of Segregation. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

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

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. 1896.

Spencer, Margaret Beale. 1982. Personal and Group Identity of Black Children: An Alternative Synthesis. Genetic Psychology Monographs 106: 5984.

Spencer, Margaret Beale. 1984. Black Childrens Race Awareness, Racial Attitudes, and Self-Concept: A Reinterpretation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 25 (3): 433441.

Ruth Thompson-Miller

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Brown V. Board of Education, 1954

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Brown V. Board of Education, 1954