Brown v. Board of Education

views updated

Brown v. Board of Education






The Supreme Court’s historic school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. The 1954 ruling outlawed racial segregation in public schools and led to the dismantling of a legal regime that had relegated African Americans to a subordinated position in American society. Brown was the culmination of a carefully orchestrated litigation campaign by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had challenged segregation in a series of lawsuits spanning two decades.

The events that led to Brown commenced more than a half-century earlier, when the Reconstruction era ended and southern states began to enact laws that established a system of racial segregation. In 1892, a test case was organized in New Orleans, Louisiana, that challenged an ordinance requiring segregation on public transportation. Acting on a prearranged plan, Homer Plessy was arrested after refusing to leave a railroad car reserved for white passengers. Plessy’s lawyers were confident that the law violated the Fourteenth and Thirteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution because it treated African Americans differently and less favorably than white passengers. In 1896, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that, “the enforced separation of the races … neither abridges the privileges or immunities of the colored man, deprives him of this property without due process of law, nor denies him equal protection of the law, within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Plessy endorsed segregation and established the “separate but equal” doctrine. The Court held that segregation laws did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment if the facilities provided for blacks were equal to those reserved for whites. Reflecting the racial sentiments of the time, the Court concluded that “[i]f one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” After Plessy, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were essentially nullified in the South. African Americans were disenfranchised, confined to substandard housing in segregated neighborhoods, and excluded from all but the lowest-paying, least desirable occupations.


In 1909, the NAACP was established to promote the equality rights of African Americans. After years of unsuccessful lobbying and protest efforts, however the organization shifted its focus. In 1935 the organization hired Charles H. Houston, a brilliant, Harvard-trained visionary, to lead a campaign that would challenge segregation in the courts. Houston was the dean of the Howard University School of Law, where he inspired the generation of African-American lawyers who waged the legal battle against segregation. Houston was the architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy, and Howard University was his laboratory.

By the early 1930s the separate but equal doctrine was firmly entrenched in the law. Given the conservative legal climate of the time, Houston did not want to risk a reaffirmation of Plessy. Instead, he devised an indirect approach: the “equalization strategy.” When the plan was implemented, cases would be filed arguing that states operating segregated schools were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment based on the substandard and demonstrably unequal facilities maintained for black students. Houston calculated that if the equality aspect of Plessy’s “separate but equal” doctrine were enforced, states would be compelled to make black schools physically and otherwise equal to white institutions. Local school districts, however, would not be able to bear the resulting economic burden. Under the pressure of litigation, segregation would eventually collapse under its own weight.

The litigation campaign focused on graduate and professional schools, where the southern states were most vulnerable. Several publicly funded black colleges had been established in the South, but virtually none of them provided graduate or professional training. The first “equalization” case, Pearson v. Murray, involved the efforts of Donald Murray, a black student, to be admitted to the University of Maryland Law School. Houston and a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall represented the student. They argued that the university violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it had failed to establish a law school for black students. At the trial’s conclusion, the judge ordered the university to admit Murray to the entering class the following semester. A similar case, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, was filed in Missouri, with the same arguments being made. When that case reached the Supreme Court, it ordered the black student’s admission to the University of Missouri’s Law School.

Murray and Gaines were decided in the late 1930s. With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, the NAACP’s attention was diverted to other matters. When the war ended in 1945, conditions were very different from the conservative legal climate of the 1930s. There were many factors that directly and indirectly influenced civil rights efforts. Significantly, the United States and its European Allies had prevailed against a Nazi regime that was premised on racial supremacy. Having fought Nazism abroad, African -American veterans were determined to fight racism at home.

Elite attitudes toward racial injustice also showed evidence of change. President Harry Truman commissioned a study that resulted in a 1947 report, To Secure These Rights, which took a strong, pro–civil rights position. In 1948 Truman issued an executive order requiring the desegregation of the armed forces. In addition, the “scientific” racism of previous decades was on the wane. One of the era’s most influential publications was An American Dilemma (1944), a two-volume study prepared by a team of researchers led by the Swedish economist, Gunner Myrdal. It explored, in considerable detail, the adverse effects of discrimination and segregation on black and white Americans, and it urged the repeal of segregation laws.

Moreover, the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for influence with the postcolonial democracies that were emerging in Africa and Asia. America’s mistreatment of its black citizens undermined its claim as “the land of the free” and provided an easy target for anti-American propaganda. In “Brown as a Cold War Case” (2004), Professor Mary Dudziak argues persuasively that the Supreme Court justices who decided Brown were probably influenced by the political realities of the cold war. These changing circumstances were the context in which the final school desegregation cases were decided.

In 1946 the NAACP filed a suit against the University of Oklahoma. The Supreme Court held, in Sipuel v. Board of Regents, that the university was obligated to provide legal instruction to black students. A similar case, Sweatt v. Painter, was filed in Texas and another, McLaurin v. Board of Regents, was also brought in Oklahoma. The Supreme Court issued decisions in both of these cases on the same day in 1950. In opinions that acknowledged the stigmatic and other intangible injuries that segregation caused, the Court ruled in the NAACP’s favor, but it stopped short of reversing Plessy.

After the rulings in Sweatt and McLaurin, the NAACP lawyers decided that an adequate foundation for a direct challenge to Plessy had been established. Eventually, six cases were filed in five jurisdictions by Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka arose in Kansas; Briggs v. Elliott involved schools in South Carolina; Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County was brought in Virginia; and there was a District of Columbia proceeding, Bolling v. Sharpe. The two other cases, Belton v. Gebhart and Bulah v. Gebhart, took place in Delaware.

The cases were consolidated and argued in the Supreme Court in December 1952, but they were held over and re-argued in December 1953. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was announced on May 17, 1954. Chief Justice Earl Warren read the unanimous opinion to a packed courtroom. It concluded that, under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision represented the beginning of the end of segregation.


The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision did not address a remedy for school segregation. It was not until 1955, in Brown v. Board of Education II, that the Supreme Court remanded the cases and ordered the school boards to

develop plans in which desegregation would proceed with “all deliberate speed” under the supervision of the local federal courts. While the Brown decision has been praised as the decisive blow to American Jim Crow, Brown II has been criticized as a weak decision that set no real timetable for desegregation and emboldened southern racists. Immediately after Brown II, white southern politicians and community leaders, determined to fight desegregation by any means necessary, embraced a strategy known as “massive resistance.” State legislatures passed laws to impede implementation of the Brown decision, school boards sought to evade compliance by closing schools, opening state funded “segregation academies” and, where necessary, embracing token desegregation; politicians such as Governor George Wallace of Alabama and Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas exploited and encouraged mass public opposition to integration; and acts of violence and intimidation were carried out against black communities and activists.

The decision in Brown, and white resistance to it, helped to spark the era of civil rights activism. Mass marches, “sit ins,” and other forms of nonviolent protest activities were organized in localities across the South as grassroots activists sought to expand the desegregation principle from education to other areas of civic life. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Dorothy Height, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and others emerged as leaders of the movement. Yet despite the unprecedented levels of demonstrations and other protest activities during the 1950s and 1960s, very little progress was made toward school desegregation. In 1961 there were no black students attending white schools in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.

In the late 1960s the Supreme Court finally took steps to end to the South’s “massive resistance.” Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County dealt with a school district involved in the original Brown cases that had closed all of its schools to avoid desegregation. In 1964, Prince Edward County was ordered to reopen its schools. In the 1969 case Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that the “continued operation of segregated schools under a standard allowing ‘all deliberate speed’ for desegregation is no longer constitutionally permissible … the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.” In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), the Court held that states that operated segregated schools had an affirmative duty to eradicate all vestiges of the segregated system “root and branch.” In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, decided in 1971, the Court endorsed busing as a means of achieving racial balance in individual schools.

School desegregation efforts took place against a backdrop of residential segregation. In the 1940s and 1950s, white families were rapidly moving to suburban communities. This demographic shift was facilitated by a prosperous postwar economy, and by subsidy programs such as mortgages guaranteed by the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration. Yet black families with the resources to purchase homes in suburban neighborhoods were excluded by discriminatory policies, many of which were imposed by the federal government.

The effect of racially segregated housing patterns on school desegregation efforts was the focus of Milliken v. Bradley, a 1974 case involving schools in Detroit, Michigan. As a consequence of “white flight” to suburban communities, the schools in Detroit were rapidly shifting to predominately black enrollments. The lawyers in Milliken argued that racial balance could not be achieved without including the suburban districts in the desegregation plan.

The Supreme Court held that suburban districts could not be required to participate in court-ordered desegregation plans unless it could be proven that their actions contributed to segregation in the jurisdiction in which the case arose. This meant that there could be no court-ordered busing across district lines without a showing of an interdistrict violation. In most localities, therefore, suburban districts were effectively insulated from the desegregation process.


Court-supervised school desegregation proceeded slowly for several years after Milliken, relying heavily on intra-district busing to achieve racial balance in schools. In the early 1990s, the Supreme Court revised its approach with a number of “resegregation” decisions: Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell; Freeman v. Pitts; and Missouri v. Jenkins. In Dowell, the Supreme Court modified the standard for determining “unitary status”—the point at which the desegregation obligation has been satisfied and court supervision is no longer necessary. The Court ruled in Dowell that the test for determining unitary status was whether the school board “had complied in good faith with the [original] desegregation decree,” and whether all “vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated to the extent practicable.” In Freeman v. Pitts, a case involving a school district adjacent to Atlanta, Georgia, the Court found that when segregated schools persist because of changes in the racial composition of neighborhoods or other “external” factors, school districts could not be held responsible unless those conditions were caused by actions taken by school officials.

Dowell and Freeman eviscerated the Green standard, which established an obligation to eliminate all vestiges of segregation “root and branch.” Under the Court’s relaxed formula, school districts were obligated to eradicate vestiges of segregation only to “the extent practicable.” This was affirmed in Jenkins, where the majority ruled that the test for determining unitary status was not a determination that all vestiges of the formerly segregated system had been eliminated “root and branch,” but whether school districts complied in good faith with the desegregation decrees, and whether the remnants of past discrimination had been eliminated to the “extent practicable.” The Court also found that segregated housing patterns, which affected the racial composition of schools, would not preclude a unitary status finding unless they could be directly attributed to the actions of school officials.

The assumption underlying the resegregation decisions is that schools only have to desegregate to the extent that it is possible to do so. Any segregation that continues is caused by housing patterns that reflect what the Supreme Court characterized as the “private choices” of individual families. This is a debatable premise, because black and Latino families do not have the range of housing choices that are available to whites with comparable incomes and credit histories. Studies regularly produced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other organizations demonstrate that the choices of these groups are constrained by discriminatory practices that perpetuate segregated neighborhoods.

The Supreme Court’s redefinition of unitary status requires lower courts to hold that the desegregation obligation has been satisfied, even when school enrollments reflect the segregated housing patterns of the neighborhoods in which they are located. This has led to unitary status findings in school districts across the nation. As high levels of residential segregation persist in most urban neighborhoods, public schools in those communities have been resegregating since the mid-1990s.


Critics of the Brown decision fall into two categories: those that argue that Brown went too far, and those that argue that it did not go far enough. Some critics, such as Michael Klarman, have argued that Brown unnecessarily radicalized the social and political climate in the South. These critics claim that, without Brown, segregation would have ended in a more gradual manner with broader support among southern whites. Other critics, including Derrick Bell, assert Brown put too great a focus on desegregation at the expense of educational quality, and point out that one consequence of Brown has been the loss of black institutional control of some schools, to the detriment of black students. In Bell’s view, competent and caring instruction in an all-black environment would have been preferable to the obstacles encountered by many black students in the years following the Brown decision. A third group of critics argue that, notwithstanding Brown’s holding, a failure of enforcement has made the decision impotent. Gary Orfield and James Patterson have each identified a trend toward resegregation in Brown’s aftermath, a persistent black-white achievement gap, and a mood of pessimism at Brown’s uncertain legacy.

Brown v. Board of Education was among the most important and far-reaching Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth century, and its imprint extended well beyond public school desegregation. The decision sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and ultimately led to the nullification of a network of state and local laws that enforced discrimination and segregation. Those in a position to do so took advantage of the educational, employment, and other opportunities that were not available to African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century. For this segment of the African-American population, the civil rights movement created unprecedented avenues for advancement.

However, the benefits that flowed from the Brown decision have not been evenly distributed across the urban landscape. For the one-fourth of the African-American population that have low incomes and reside in the nation’s inner cities, the Brown decision has had little tangible affect. Families that reside in those communities endure conditions that are, in many ways, as distressed as those their forbears endured during the depths of the segregation era. They suffer from high levels of unemployment, substandard educational opportunities, and unsafe communities.

SEE ALSO Houston, Charles Hamilton; Marshall, Thurgood; NAACP; NAACP: Legal Actions, 1935–1955; Plessy v. Ferguson.



Cottrol, Robert J., Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware. 2003. Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Dudziak, Mary. 2004. “Brown as a Cold War Case.” Journal of American History 91 (1): 32.

Friedman, Leon, ed. 1983. Argument: The Oral Argument before the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, 1952–55. New York: Chelsea House.

Greenberg, Jack. 1994. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

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

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

Lewis, David Levering. 1994. W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Henry Holt.

Martin, Waldo E. 1998. Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: St. Martin’s.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McNeil, Genna Rae. 1983. Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Motley, Constance Baker. 1998. Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Orfield, Gary, and Susan E. Eaton. 1996. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

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

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

Williams, Juan. 1998. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. New York: Times Books.


Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, 396 U.S. 19 (1969).

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

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Fisher v. Hurst, 333 U.S. 147 (1948).

Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467 (1992).

Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia, 391 U.S. 430 (1968).

Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 US 218 (1964).

McLaurin v. Okla. State Regents for Higher Educ., 339 U.S. 637 (1950).

Milliken v. Bradley, 418 US 717 (1974).

Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70 (1994).

Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).

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

Sipuel v. Bd. of Regents, 332 U.S. 631 (1948).

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 US 1 (1971).

Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).

Leland Ware

About this article

Brown v. Board of Education

Updated About content Print Article


Brown v. Board of Education