The 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared that separate school facilities were inherently unequal violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Today, African-American students are still struggling to close the achievement gap in education.
The Case as a Symbol
One of the Brown v. Board of Education facts is that it commemorates a Supreme Court decision establishing the legal framework for dismantling racial segregation in public schools. In May 1954, the Court ruled unanimously that the doctrine of “separate but equal” violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and ordered the desegregation of schools.
The case centered on Linda Brown, the daughter of an African American pastor in Topeka who wanted to attend the neighborhood school instead of the one across town that her parents could afford. Her father, Oliver Brown, partnered with the NAACP to file a lawsuit against the school district in the name of his daughter, who was seven years old at the time.
Brown drew on five similar cases that had reached the Supreme Court, including Belton v. Gebhart (Delaware), Bolling v. Sharpe (District of Columbia), Briggs v. Elliott (South Carolina), and Davis v. County School Board of Virginia. The Court consolidated the cases, and Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP lawyer, was selected to argue the case on behalf of the Browns.
The Court’s unanimous opinion in Brown offered some hope – considerable hope – that America was ready to deliver on the parchment promises of its Constitution and abolish Jim Crow laws, which had been created after Reconstruction ended and enforced through violent means, including state-sanctioned lynching. But, the decision was not as expansive as it might appear at first glance, and it did not give schools a specific date by which they must be integrated.
The Case in Context
As part of its 1954 decision, the Supreme Court consolidated cases from several states that challenged school segregation. These cases included Brown itself (which was filed by Oliver Brown), Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), and Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware). The Court ruled that all of these segregation policies violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that ending these laws would lead to school integration.
Although many Americans celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, they had little idea that this ruling marked the beginning of a long struggle for equality in America’s public schools. Rather than end segregation, the 1954 decision sparked a nationwide movement spanning decades, resulting in the late 1950s and early 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
The stalemate that emerged between white resistance to Brown and black demands for equality was exacerbated by the lack of information that surrounded this critical decision. While the case itself drew on research from social scientists and legal precedent, it did not include much in the way of specific details about how segregation was harming African Americans.
The Case as a Law
The case began when the Topeka school board refused to let Oliver Brown’s daughter enroll in the local school because she was black. The family filed a lawsuit with the help of lawyers working for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. They argued that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that laws mandating segregation were unconstitutional.
The Court agreed. The decision, which declared that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, was an important legal precedent and a landmark social case. However, the Court did not explicitly specify how segregation would end. It instead asked the states to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed.”
While a few moderate progressives, such as Ralph McGill of Atlanta Constitution, were critical of the Court’s decision, the verdict was an enormous relief for most. Before the Supreme Court decided Brown, African Americans faced discrimination on a large scale in the seventeen Southern and border states that still required racial segregation of public schools. If they complained about this, they could lose their jobs or receive threats of violence from white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
In addition to arguing that segregation was unfair and illegal, the plaintiffs in Brown also cited sociological research showing that segregated schools made students feel inferior to their counterparts. This argument was key to prevailing in the case.
The Case as a Movement
The Court’s unanimous decision in Brown reaffirmed the Constitution’s promise to ensure equal education for all citizens. But the fight to enforce that promise was beginning. The case catalyzed the civil rights movement and demonstrated that combining legal strategies with mass protest can be powerful in fighting the forces of oppression.
Oliver Brown and other Topeka parents sued the local school system in 1951. They argued that separate schools were inherently unequal and that segregation violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. A three-judge court of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas ruled against the Browns, citing Plessy.
A series of NAACP lawsuits followed, including Briggs v. Elliott (1951), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952), Gebhart v. Belton (1952) in Delaware, and Bolling v. Sharpe (1952). The U.S. District Courts in these cases ruled against the plaintiffs, but the Supreme Court consolidated them and ruled in favor of the Browns and the other plaintiffs in the other lawsuits.
However, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, segregation continued in many places. White political and economic power resisted the Supreme Court’s orders for desegregation.