Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that pronounced state-mandated segregation in public schools unconstitutional, was a consolidation of six cases that challenged legally mandated school segregation in Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Topeka, Kansas. Brown would prove to be a pivotal case in the Supreme Court’s history. It reversed the Court’s earlier “separate but equal” position in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The decision served as a catalyst for the modern Civil Rights movement. Brown was the first decision authored by new Chief Justice Earl Warren and presaged a more activist era in the Court’s history.
Brown must be understood within the broader context of the history of race relations in the United States, particularly the history of Jim Crow in the southern states. The Civil War and Reconstruction had brought considerable political, social, and legal change to the nation, particularly the South. The Constitution had been amended to forbid slavery (Thirteenth Amendment), establish black citizenship and the equal treatment of people before the law (Fourteenth Amendment), and provide equal voting rights for men of different races (Fifteenth Amendment). From the late 1860s through the 1890s, there was widespread voting on the part of black men in the South. A number of African American men also held political office in the region.
By the turn of the century, the relatively egalitarian atmosphere of the post–Civil War era was beginning to radically change. Spurred on in part by the withdrawal of federal troops and federal civil rights enforcement from the South, southern states toward the end of the nineteenth century began passing increasingly discriminatory legislation aimed at blacks. The legislation took two forms. The first was legislation aimed at disenfranchising blacks. Because of the Fifteenth Amendment, this had to be done indirectly through such means as literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other devices. The second type of legislation was Jim Crow legislation, aimed at the separation of blacks and whites in virtually every public venue, seats on trains and street cars, park benches, water fountains, restrooms, and bibles for witnesses in court. Southern (and other) states also maintained segregated public schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court would give its sanction to this system of Jim Crow. It considered the issue in Plessy v. Ferguson. That case, involving an 1890 Louisiana statute mandating segregation on railroad cars, became the occasion for the Court to declare that legally enforced segregation was constitutional despite the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. A key issue in Plessy was whether state-mandated segregation stigmatized blacks as inferior. The majority opinion authored by Justice Henry Billings Brown rejected the claim that segregation was stigmatizing and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The opinion by Justice Brown upheld the doctrine of separate but equal, maintaining that as long as the facilities provided for people of different races were equal, there was no constitutional harm in segregation. The majority opinion in Plessy was the object of a vigorous lone dissent by Justice John Marshall Harlan.
In the era before World War I, the Supreme Court showed little inclination to seriously consider constitutional challenges to either Jim Crow or disenfranchisement. The Court sustained a Kentucky statute prohibiting integration in private colleges in Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky (1905). The Court also rejected a number of challenges against discriminatory regulations that essentially disenfranchised African Americans in many states. The early twentieth century was a period when the federal government essentially provided little or no protection for the civil rights of black citizens. Disenfranchisement and Jim Crow were often accompanied by severe racial violence. Lynching and race riots frequently occurred, often with the acquiescence (and sometimes the participation) of state and local officials.
It was in this bleak atmosphere that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded. Founded in 1909 by, among others, African American scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, the NAACP was organized to fight the evils of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, and lynching. The organization turned to litigation as a primary tool in the fight against racial discrimination early in its history. One of the organization’s earliest victories came in the 1917 case Buchanan v. Warley. In that case, the NAACP had filed an amicus brief in a challenge to a Kentucky statute that prohibited whites from selling residential property to blacks in majority white neighborhoods. The Supreme Court struck down the statute because it violated freedom of contract.
Buchanan was a small step; nonetheless, it indicated that despite an unsympathetic judicial atmosphere, the Constitution and carefully prepared litigation might be enlisted in the fight against racial discrimination. The idea of using these tools in the fight against Jim Crow was further refined in the 1930s by NAACP attorney Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston was appointed vice dean of the Howard University Law School in 1929. He transformed the predominately black law school, upgrading its quality and giving the institution a new mission—the development and practice of civil rights law. Houston’s most important student at Howard was Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, barred from the state law school in his home state of Maryland because he was black, attended Howard and absorbed Houston’s lessons on civil rights advocacy.
In the 1930s, the NAACP began to develop its strategy to attack segregated education. Realizing that a frontal assault on segregation as such would stand little chance of success, the civil rights organization decided on a two-pronged strategy to tackle segregation in state-sponsored education. The first prong of this strategy was to attempt force state governments and the courts to treat seriously Plessy’s requirement that separate facilities had to be equal. This would be an important and difficult effort because spending, teaching resources, and physical facilities for black schools were significantly below those for white schools in the states that practiced legal segregation. The second prong of the NAACP strategy was to focus litigation efforts on graduate and professional schools in southern states. This was done, in part, because attacking discrimination in graduate and professional education was seen as posing fewer political and social difficulties than attacking segregation in elementary and secondary education.
An early success of this strategy came in 1936 in the case of Pearson v. Murray. In Pearson, the NAACP successfully brought suit on behalf of Donald Murray, a black resident of Baltimore. Murray had been denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School. Maryland’s policy was to provide scholarships to African Americans to study law in out-of-state law schools. Houston and Marshall represented Murray. They convinced the Maryland Court of Appeals that an out-of-state legal education was not equal to one provided at the state university’s law school. The Court ordered Murray admitted to the University of Maryland.
The victory in Pearson set the stage for other litigation attacking segregation in state graduate and professional schools. In State ex rel v. Gaines (1938), Houston successfully argued that Missouri’s exclusion of blacks from the state law school was unconstitutional even though the state was willing to pay tuition for black students to attend law school out of state. The U.S. Supreme Court held that an out-of-state legal education was not the equal of attending the state law school. Following Gaines, the NAACP had similar successes in the federal courts attacking segregated professional education in Oklahoma and Texas.
While the precedents that were being developed in the professional school segregation cases were important, changing racial attitudes undoubtedly played an even more important role in the decision in Brown. World War II brought about significant changes in the racial attitudes of white Americans. The war brought about a new assertiveness on the part of African Americans, many of whom left the rural South and traditional patterns of racial domination for the armed forces and the industrial cities of the North and West. The fight against Nazi racism also caused many white Americans to question traditional racial attitudes. The social sciences were also increasingly calling established racial prejudices into question. The publication in 1944 of Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy also had a significant impact, causing many university-educated people to question the practice of segregation.
The change in racial atmosphere in the postwar United States led to a new willingness on the part of the NAACP to confront legally mandated segregation. The organization had more victories in its fight against segregated professional education. There were other important victories in the legal struggle against discrimination. In Shelly v. Kramer (1948), the Supreme Court declared that courts could not enforce restrictive covenants barring minorities from certain residential properties, indicating that the Court might be willing to give the Fourteenth Amendment a broader reading than it had in the past. Many in the NAACP believed that the time was right for a frontal assault on segregated education.
Between 1950 and 1952, the NAACP began preparation for the six cases that would collectively come to be known as Brown v. Board of Education. The case included one case from South Carolina, Briggs v. Elliott; two cases from Delaware, Gebhart et al. v. Belton and Gebhart v. Bulah; a Virginia case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County; and a case from the District of Columbia, Bolling v. Sharpe. The case by which the litigation is known arose in Topeka, Kansas. While Kansas did not have statewide segregation, it gave localities the option to have segregated schools. Topeka’s elementary schools were segregated and Oliver Brown, a black resident of Topeka, filed suit in order to allow his daughter to attend a school reserved for whites that both was nearer to his home and had better facilities.
The litigation effort was led by Thurgood Marshall. Marshall assembled a team of rising legal stars in the postwar United States including Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Robert L. Carter, Charles Black, Louis Redding, and Spottswood Robinson. Marshall also enlisted the aid of social science experts whose research supported the argument that segregation tended to stigmatize African Americans. One of these social scientists was black psychologist Kenneth Clark, who had done research on the effects of segregation on the self-esteem of black children.
In 1952, the Supreme Court consolidated the six different desegregation cases. The first set of oral arguments was heard by the Court in December of that year. Later, in June 1953, the Court asked for a second set of oral arguments designed to specifically address the issue of whether or not the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to ban school segregation. As that issue was being researched, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died in September 1953. He was replaced by Earl Warren. Most observers agree that Vinson would not have supported the desegregation that the NAACP asked for in Brown. The second set of oral arguments was held in December 1953.
It would not be until May 17, 1954, that the Court finally rendered its decision. Between the oral arguments in December and the final decision in May, there was considerable behind-the-scenes drama involving Brown. New Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice Felix Frankfurter were particularly concerned with getting a unanimous decision supporting desegregation. Both justices feared that anything less than unanimity would invite doubt and resistance to the decision. The final decision authored by Chief Justice Warren was unanimous. It declared separate schools to be inherently unequal. The Warren decision was based in part on the importance of education in modern society and also in part on social science evidence showing the damaging nature of segregation.
Although the Warren opinion declared segregated education unconstitutional, Brown v. Board of Education did not prescribe any means of implementing the desegregation of schools. This was left to a second Brown v. Board of Education decision, frequently referred to as Brown II. The latter case was decided the following year in 1955. Brown II called for the implementation of desegregation with “all deliberate speed.” The actual process of implementing desegregation and dismantling segregated school systems was handled by federal district courts. The process was slow and often painful, and took decades.
Brown provoked considerable controversy when first decided. It was fiercely resisted by many state and local officials who attempted, often with extralegal and sometimes violent means, to nullify the decision. Many commentators also initially criticized the decision for being grounded more in social science evidence than the Constitution. As racial attitudes have changed, so have attitudes toward the 1954 decision. The decision has now become an icon of Supreme Court jurisprudence. As fewer people in public life in recent decades have been willing to defend Jim Crow, the criticisms of Brown have become less frequent. More recently, modern commentators have criticized the decision as having been too conservative. Modern critics contend that while the case ended de jure segregation, it did not solve the problems of de facto segregation and inequality. Despite these criticisms, Brown had a far-reaching impact on American race relations. The case put the moral authority of the Constitution and the Supreme Court squarely behind the fight against Jim Crow.
Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond, and Leland B. Ware, Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture and the Constitution (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003).
Robert J. Cottrol
Last updated: 2006