Brown v. Board of
Education of Topeka
no other case decided by the Court in the 20th century has had so profound an
effect on the social fabric of America
as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
By the end of World War II, dramatic changes in American race relations were
already underway. The integration of labor unions in the 1930s under the eye of
the Fair Employment Practices Commission and the desegregation of the armed
forces by President Truman in 1948 marked major steps toward racial
legal framework on which segregation rested—formally established in 1896 by the
decision—was itself being dismantled. Challenged repeatedly by the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the doctrine of
“separate but equal” was beginning to crack. Beginning in 1938, the Supreme
Court had, in a number of cases, struck down laws where segregated facilities
proved to be “demonstrably unequal.” The Court ordered the law schools at the University of Missouri
and the University of Texas to be integrated in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada,
1938, and Sweatt
1950. Neither case had made the frontal assault needed to overturn the Plessy standard. However, the 1950s brought a new wave of
challenges to official segregation by the NAACP and other groups.
Circumstances of the Case
Brown, an eight-year-old African-American girl, had been denied permission to
attend an elementary school only five blocks from her home in Topeka, Kansas.
School officials refused to register her at the nearby school, assigning her
instead to a school for nonwhite students some 21 blocks from her home.
Separate elementary schools for whites and nonwhites were maintained by the
Board of Education in Topeka.
Linda Brown's parents filed a lawsuit to force the schools to admit her to the
nearby, but segregated, school for white students.
central question addressed to the Court involved the Equal Protection Clause of
the 14th Amendment. “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on
the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible'
factors may be equal, deprive the children…of equal educational opportunities?”
In short, the Court was asked to determine whether the segregation of schools
was at all constitutional.
Led by Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP litigator who
would be appointed to the Court in 1967, Brown's attorneys argued that the
operation of separate schools, based on race, was harmful to African-American
children. Extensive testimony was provided to support the contention that legal
segregation resulted in both fundamentally unequal education and low
self-esteem among minority students. The Brown family lawyers argued that
segregation by law implied that African Americans were inherently inferior to
whites. For these reasons they asked the Court to strike down segregation under
the Board of Education: Attorneys for Topeka argued that the
separate schools for nonwhites in Topeka
were equal in every way, and were in complete conformity with the Plessy
standard. Buildings, the courses of study offered, and the quality of teachers
were completely comparable. In fact, because some federal funds for Native
Americans only applied at the nonwhite schools, some programs for minority
children were actually better than those offered at the schools for whites.
They pointed to the Plessy
decision of 1896 to support segregation and argued that they had in good faith
created “equal facilities,” even though races were segregated. Furthermore,
they argued, discrimination by race did not harm children.
Decision and Rationale
unanimous Court (9-0), Chief Justice Warren wrote in his first and probably
most significant decision, “[S]egregation [in public
education] is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.” Accepting the
arguments put forward by the plaintiffs, Warren declared: “To separate [some
children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their
race generates 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.”
Court quoted the Kansas
court, which had held that “Segregation of white and colored children in public
schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is
greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the
races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation
of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a
tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits
they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated
wrote: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of
'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are
inherently unequal…. segregation [in public education] is a denial of the equal
protection of the laws.”
The Brown decision did
more than reverse the Plessy
doctrine of “separate but equal.” It reversed centuries of segregationist
practice and thought in America.
For that reason, the Brown
decision is seen as a transforming event—the birth of a political and social
revolution. In a later case called Brown
had suggested two decisions—the first dealing with the constitutionality of
segregation and the second with the implementation of the decision), the Court
directed an end to school segregation by race “with all deliberate speed.” The Brown decision became
the cornerstone of the social justice movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It
finally brought the spirit of the 14th Amendment into practice, more than
three-quarters of a century after that amendment had been passed.
SUPREME COURT CASES
ORIGIN OF THE CASE:
(Describe what the case is about)
THE RULING: (What the court
SUMMARIZE WHY IT MATTERED:
DISCUSS HISTORIAL IMPACT: