The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education was a milestone decision that helped lead to the desegregation of schools in America. The ruling overturned the separate but equal doctrine established in 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson and held that segregation was unconstitutional in public facilities.
The story behind the case started in 1950 when Oliver Brown, a Black church minister, tried to enroll his daughter Linda in Sumner Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. But the school board turned her away because it was an all-white school. An organization stepped in and recruited several parents to file suit. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases in 1952 as Brown v. Board of Education amendment.
The Brown decision overturned Plessy, a ruling that had held that segregating schools for white and black students was legal. The Supreme Court ruled that this system of separate but equal schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It also ruled that states could not use racial discrimination to justify their educational systems.
In the aftermath of Brown, many states began to enact laws that allowed for school integration and other civil rights reforms. However, some remained resistant, and some scholars believed that the Supreme Court overstepped its constitutional powers in the Brown decision. They argued that the Court should have relied more heavily on sociological studies than legal precedent or established law. One reason why integrating schools was so important was that it helped ensure that the children of Black and Latino families received the same quality of education as white kids. Before Brown, many Black and Latino schools were underfunded, poorly run, and had fewer resources than their white counterparts. They were also often located in poor neighborhoods.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, which overturned Plessy and ended school segregation, was a milestone. It wasn’t the end of segregation, however, as many schools remained segregated in practice, and discriminatory laws were still on the books in many states. When the Supreme Court first heard Brown in 1953, it seemed to be a close call. Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who grew up in a segregated Kentucky community, wasn’t convinced that Plessy should be overturned on constitutional grounds, and other justices were undecided or possibly leaning toward upholding the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Thurgood Marshall knew that he needed all five justices to prevail. So, he recruited some of the best attorneys in the country to serve as lawyers for Brown’s plaintiffs. These included future federal district judges Robert Carter and Jack Greenberg, former Justice William Coleman, and others.
The case became a rallying point for civil rights, as it became clear that the Court would end segregation in public schools. The justices in Brown argued that segregating black students from white students violated the Constitution because it “creates a situation of unequal educational opportunities for children of different racial groups and therefore deprives them of equal protection under the law.”
The unanimous decision in Brown set the legal precedent for overturning laws enforcing racial segregation. The decision also prompted state governments to desegregate schools quickly but didn’t end racial inequalities in other areas of American life.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown brought the issue of racial segregation into the national spotlight and prompted countless school desegregation suits throughout the country. It also impeded the growing Civil Rights movement and set a precedent that ultimately led to the end of legal segregation.
The Court’s 1954 decision that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” did not explicitly spell out a method of ending segregation. Still, it made clear that the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits laws that promote segregation. The decision consolidated the cases of Briggs v. Elliott, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, and Gebhart v. Belton, all of which involved class-action lawsuits filed by the NAACP to challenge school segregation in the United States.
As a result of the case, many schools began to desegregate. Still, most districts pursued strategies that allowed them to delay the process until after the Supreme Court ruled on specific guidelines for implementation. Justice Warren’s 1957 ruling on the Brown II case delegated the authority for implementing the desegregation order to local courts. It stated that it should be carried out with all deliberate speed but that he expected state-wide compliance within a reasonable time frame.
The Brown decision marked a watershed moment in America’s civil rights progress. Still, it also left behind thousands of Black students and educators whose fates were not considered when the country moved to reshape education systems. Today, many of them still feel forgotten by the legacy of the landmark case.
The events that sparked the Brown case began when Oliver Brown, a pastor, and father of seven, attempted to enroll his daughter Linda at Sumner Elementary School a few blocks from their home in Topeka, Kansas, only to be told she would have to attend an all-white school two miles away instead. Joined by twelve other local families in similar circumstances, the family sued the school district for segregation.
In the aftermath of Brown, many judicial scholars and constitutional experts opposed the decision, arguing that it was based on sociological research and was outside established legal precedent. Other opponents believed that the Court overstepped its authority and was essentially writing new laws.
However, the Supreme Court upheld the Brown decision in a series of cases known as “Brown II.” The Court refused to establish a firm timetable for desegregation but ruled that public schools must be desegregated with all deliberate speed. The work of the Legal Defense Fund continued after Brown to hold hundreds of schools accountable for violating the promise of equal educational opportunity, and it continues today.