Brown v. Board of Education

(Topeka, Kansas)

347 U.S. 483 (1954)

    Facts: Linda Brown was denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka because she was black. Eventually four black children sought the aid of the courts to be admitted to the all ­white public schools in their community after having been denied admission under laws which permitted racial segregation. The youths stated that these laws deprived them of the equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment, even though their all­ black schools were equal to the all white schools with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other tangible factors.

    Issue : Are separate but equal schools constitutional?

    Decision: The Supreme Court unanimously overruled the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson, holding for the first time that de jure segregation in the public schools violated the principle of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reasoning that separate but equal is inherently unequal and is therefore unconstitutional. They based their decision on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thurgood Marshall (at the time a lawyer for the NAACP urged..... ...(the) badge of inferiority stamped on minority children by segregation hindered their full development no matter how equal physical facilities might be. (dejure segregation).

    Significance: In 1955 the Court declared that schools must be desegregated with all deliberate speed....even if the facilities were physically equal, the children of the minority group were still receiving an inferior education. Separate educational facilities were held to be inherently unequal.

This heralded the beginning the desegregation process. Restricted in application to de jure segregation, the Brown rule was applied mainly to Southern school systems. School administrators had to take immediate action toward desegregation under the supervision of the lower courts. This ruling stimulated the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's speeding up integration of public accommodations and facilities. De facto segregation of schools caused by residential housing patterns (white flight)and a variety other conditions rather than by law, has been approached with limited success by the busing of students.(Swann v. Charlotte ­Mecklenburg County Board of Education) This landmark decision is commemorated by the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas.


Corkill, Phillip. The Law and American Education. Tucson, Arizona. 1991 (Lecture presented at the Flowing Wells School District Administrative Office).

Important Landmark Cases in Educational Law

The ruling in Brown was based on the 14th Amendment and its Equal Protection Clause. This does not apply to the Federal Government or to the District of Columbia which could still operate segregated schools. The issue regarding that was settled in the case of Bolling v. Sharpe 347 U.S. 497 (1954)*
See also: Landmark Case
* Click here to understand what those numbers mean

What do the formative years of our Republic, the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and the times of the Vietnam War have in common? All three are specific time periods which have taken a major part in molding American society into what it is today. One decade which could be included in this group, is the 1950s, when America was at the middle of the twentieth century, and changing rapidly. Dwight D. Eisenhower took the presidency as the American public began ranting “I Like Ike,” and America’s youth culture found itself becoming more of a central aspect of society. Manufacturers and advertisers began focusing more attention on the needs of teens, as their importance grew. The Cold War continued at a more accelerating and alarming pace, and the United States began a new policy in foreign affairs, with much covert action and intervening around the world. As a result, President Eisenhower passed the Federal Highway Act (1956), building a national highway system across the United States. All of these single events were just some extras in the decade which saw one of the most important events which forever changed the face of American society—the court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

Much throughout American history, blacks were enslaved and treated like animals. This treatment of blacks continued throughout the nineteenth century and with help of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which created the “separate but equal” doctrine,” it became worse. The first half of the twentieth century saw this doctrine go into full effect, but this came to a sudden halt with the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954, which declared “separate but equal” to be contradictory terms. The Supreme Court declared that segregation was in fact, not equal, and had long term psychological damages upon African Americans. It forced schools to be integrated.

The effect of this Supreme Court decision was that African Americans were to be integrated with the white children in public schools. This change was unwelcome by most of the Southern white folk, and they usually found ways around it. Some ways in which whites kept blacks from voting were by utilizing white primaries, racial gerrymandering, enacting poll taxes, and using literacy tests. Nonetheless, this decision was a leap forward in the fight for civil rights. African Americans began to make a major impact on American society, as they were given more and more rights. Hitherto, blacks were unable to serve as such important members of society, but with this decision, blacks would inevitable become major aspects of American society.

This decision was in no way the end to the fight for civil rights, nor was it the end of racism, for that matter. On the contrary, it was far from it. Civil rights were to be vigorously fought for in the following decade. This Supreme Court decision was just the beginning, or the stepping stone, for civil rights. Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for further civil rights legislation, and changed American society forever by causing African Americans to become valuable members of it.

Although most American history texts hail Brown as a landmark in civil rights reform, there have been dissenters from this idea. Probably the most pronounced is Gerald Rosenberg of the University of Chicago, who wrote a book called The Hollow Hope to debunk the so-called myth of social change from the court system. Brown takes up a couple of chapters in his argument, which I'll summarize for those of you who don't have time to read the whole book.

Brown was decided in 1955. That year, 0.12% of black children in the South were attending integrated schools. By 1963, that number had skyrocketed (cough cough) to 0.45%. Clearly, not much was happening. Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where Congress got in on the action: in 1966, almost 17% of black children were attending integrated schools, and by 1970, there were more black children in integrated schools than segregated schools.

The implication is that Brown did next to nothing to integrate the schools, and that it took the initiative of Congress and the President to actually make the integration work. Irfan has already mentioned the lackadaisical attitude of the South in following the Brown decision, but in this case, statistics speak louder than words.

So what, exactly, did the Brown ruling do? It marked the first time in history that federal case law recognized black and white children as true equals. It set the stage for further government actions, culminating in the 1964 Act, that would close the broad gap separating black and white students in the South. And, of course, it was a moral victory for the NAACP, which would come back to the Supreme Court time and time again to fight for civil rights.

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