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Brown v. Board of Education

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Significance: The Supreme Court unanimously held that de jure (legally mandated) segregation of the public schools was prohibited by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Following the Civil War (1861-1865), racial segregation in public accommodations and education through so-called “Jim Crow” laws was one of the major tools of the southern states for maintaining a social system of white supremacy. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court allowed state-mandated racial segregation based on the separate but equal doctrine. In Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), the Court simply ignored the equal part of the doctrine when it allowed a community to maintain a public high school for white students without any similar institution for African Americans. In Gong Lum v. Rice (1927), the Court explicitly recognized the “right and power” of the states to require segregation in the public schools.


The Challenge Begins

In the 1930's the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to mount a serious challenge to the constitutionality of Jim Crow laws in education. Rather than confronting Plessy directly, the NAACP first concentrated on equality of opportunity at publicly funded law schools. Decisions such as Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950) indicated that the Court would insist on substantial equality of educational opportunity. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950), the Court recognized that the policy of required separation was sometimes relevant to educational equality. With these victories, Thurgood Marshall and other NAACP lawyers decided that the time was ripe to question the constitutionality of segregation in elementary and secondary education. Linda Carol Brown, an eight-year-old black girl, was not allowed to attend the all-white school in her neighborhood of Topeka, Kansas. Her parents did not want her to be bused to the all-black school, which was far from home, and they filed a suit charging a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, it was consolidated with similar cases from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. The cases were listed in alphabetical order, so that the name Brown v. Board of Education appeared first. The cases were first argued in December, 1952. Marshall and other NAACP lawyers emphasized the psychological and sociological evidence of negative effects from mandated segregation. In defense of segregation, the school districts invoked Plessy and claimed that their all-black schools either had or would soon have equal funding for facilities and teachers’ salaries.


The Court's Response

Because of the great opposition to school integration in the South, the justices recognized the desirability of presenting a united front in both the decision and the opinion. At least six of the justices agreed that Plessy should be reversed, but they strongly disagreed about how rapidly to proceed. One justice, Stanley F. Reed, argued on behalf of the continuation of Plessy, and another justice, Robert H. Jackson, wanted to move very cautiously and appeared determined to write a concurring opinion if the majority opinion were too critical of the Court's past approval of segregation. Deciding that it needed more information about the original intention of the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court scheduled a second argumentation of the cases for December, 1953. That summer, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, a moderate who was hesitant to order massive desegregation, unexpectedly died, and he was quickly replaced by the popular governor of California, Earl Warren. After Brown was reargued, Warren convinced his colleagues to defer the question of relief, and he skillfully consulted with the various justices in order to get a consensus. About a week before the decision was announced, Jackson decided not to issue a concurrence and Reed agreed not to dissent. Warren's opinion for the Court, written in thirteen paragraphs of nontechnical language, declared that segregation in public education was “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional. The public interpreted racial segregation of students “as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group,” generating among African Americans “a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Warren found that the historical evidence about the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was “inconclusive.” Even if the Framers and ratifiers had not intended to prohibit segregation in education, they had wanted to provide equal rights for public services, and the experiences of the twentieth century demonstrated that segregated schools were incompatible with the goal of equality. Formal education in the twentieth century, moreover, was much more important for a person's life chances than it had been when the Fourteenth Amendment was written.


Implementing Desegregation

The following year, in a decision commonly called Brown II, the Court addressed the issue of implementing desegregation. The NAACP wanted to proceed rapidly with firm deadlines, and the states warned that rapid desegregation would lead to withdrawal from the public schools and acts of violence. The Court settled on a cautious and ambiguous formula, requiring that segregation end “with all deliberate speed.” The implementation of Brown II, which left much discretion to federal district judges, proceeded somewhat slowly for the first ten years. In Alexander v. Holmes County (1969), the Court abandoned the deliberate speed formula and ordered an immediate end to all remaining de jure segregation. Brown is probably the most momentous and influential civil rights case of the twentieth century. In effect, the decision meant the eventual elimination of all state-sanctioned segregation. When Brown was announced, its implications were unclear in regard to the constitutionality of freedom of choice plans and de facto segregated schools based on housing patterns. The Court began to move beyond the issue of de jure segregation in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968), ruling that previously segregated school districts had an “affirmative duty” to take the steps necessary to promote racially integrated schools.



Further Reading

  • Bell, Derrick. Silent Covenants: “Brown v. Board of Education” and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Clotfelter, Charles T. After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Friedman, Leon, ed. Brown v. Board: The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court. New York: New Press, 2004.
  • 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.
  • Martin, Waldo. “Brown v. Board of Education”: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
  • Ogletree, Charles J., Jr. All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of “Brown v. Board of Education.” New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004.
  • Patterson, James T. “Brown v. Board of Education”: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Sarat, Austin, ed. Race, Law, and Culture: Reflections on “Brown v. Board of Education.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Webb, Clive, ed. Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Whitman, Mark. Removing a Badge of Slavery: The Record of “Brown v. Board of Education.” Princeton, N.J.: Wiener, 1992.