Brown v. Board of Education

From New World Encyclopedia


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Case citation 347 U.S. 483 (1954), is a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court which explicitly outlawed racial segregation of public education facilities (legal establishment of separate government-run schools for blacks and whites), ruling so on the grounds that the doctrine of "separate but equal" public education could never truly provide African Americans with facilities of the same standards available to white Americans. The U. S. Constitution had failed to resolve the problem of slavery. As a result the Civil War was fought, which freed the slaves but failed to provide them many of the civil rights that were enjoyed by white Americans. The policy of segregation was justified on the grounds that separate services and facilities for African Americans were justified if they were deemed equal to that available to whites. However, this was never actually the case and resulted in perpetuating racial discrimination against blacks. This Supreme Court ruling was one of the first attempts to desegregate racially segregated areas.

A companion case dealt with the constitutionality of segregation in the District of Columbia, (not a state and therefore not subject to the Fourteenth Amendment), Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954).

Historical background

For much of the 90 years preceding 1954, race relations in the United States had been dominated by segregation. The plaintiffs asserted that this system of racial separation, while purporting to provide separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Segregation in education varied widely between the 17 states which required segregation and the 16 which prohibited it.

Brown is undoubtedly the most famous of a group of U.S. Supreme Court cases which deal principally with the efforts of racial activists to promote the interests of the people they represented. The related cases are listed below.

The case

In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.[1] The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their twenty children. [2] The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by the Topeka Board of Education under an 1879 Kansas law which permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in twelve communities with populations over 15,000.

Oliver L. Brown had initially contacted Topeka attorney William Everett Glenn, Sr., a Hill City, Kansas native and Kansas Wesleyan University alumnus who received his law degree from Washburn University Law School, about his concerns regarding "separate but equal" policies of Topeka schools. Attorney Glenn referred him to the local Topeka NAACP chapter. Notable among the Topeka NAACP leaders were the chairman McKinley Burnett, Charles Scott, one of three serving as legal counsel for the chapter, and Lucinda Todd. The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, worked as a welder for the Santa Fe railroad and was studying for the ministry. He was convinced to join the lawsuit by Scott, a childhood friend. Brown's daughter, Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was only seven blocks from her house. As directed by the NAACP leadership, the parents each attempted to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools.

Linda Brown Thompson later recalled the experience in a 2004 PBS documentary:

… well. like I say we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out … to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn't understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.[3]

The Kansas case, "Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas," was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster. Also, it was felt by lawyers for the National Chapter of the NAACP that having Mr. Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices should the "separate but equal" be upheld by the District Court. They believed that Mr. Brown would be a more credible plaintiff because had an intact family. The twelve plaintiffs were: Oliver Brown, Darlene Brown, Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emerson, Shirley Fleming, Zelma Henderson, Shirley Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson, and Lucinda Todd.[4][5][6]

The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which had upheld a state law requiring "separate but equal" segregated facilities for blacks and whites in railway cars.[7] The three-judge District Court found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect upon negro children, but denied relief on the ground that the negro and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of teachers.[8]

Supreme Court review

The case of Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the Supreme Court combined four cases: Brown itself, 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). All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Kansas case was unique among the group in that there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools' physical plant, curriculum, or staff. The District Court found substantial equality in all such factors. The Delaware case was unique in that the District Court judge in Gebhart ordered that the black students be admitted to the white high school due to the substantial harm of segregation and the differences which made the schools separate but not equal. The NAACP's chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall—who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967—argued the case before the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs. Assistant attorney general Paul Wilson —later distinguished emeritus professor of law at the University of Kansas—conducted the state's ambivalent defense in his first appellate trial.

Local outcomes

The Topeka middle schools had been integrated since 1941. Topeka High School was integrated from its inception in the late 1800s. The Kansas law permitting segregated schools allowed them only "below the high school level."

Soon after the district court decision, election outcomes and the political climate in Topeka changed. The Board of Education of Topeka began to end segregation in the Topeka elementary schools in August of 1953, integrating two attendance districts. All the Topeka elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers in January of 1956, although existing students were allowed to continue attending their prior assigned schools at their option.[9][10][11]

Plaintiff Zelma Henderson, in a 2004 interview, recalled that no demonstrations or tumult accompanied desegregation in Topeka's schools:

"They accepted it," she said. "It wasn't too long until they integrated the teachers and principals."[12]

The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor of McKinley Burnett, NAACP chapter president who organized the case.

Monroe Elementary was designated a U.S. National Historic Site unit of the National Park Service on October 26, 1992.

The Decision

On 17 May, 1954 the Warren Court (after Chief Justice Earl Warren) handed down a 9-0 decision which stated, in no uncertain terms, that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

The 17 May, 1954 decision reversed the precedent set by the Court's previous decision in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, (1899)*, which had specifically validated the segregation of public schools. Brown did not, however, result in the immediate desegregation of America's public schools, nor did it mandate desegregation of public accommodations, such as restaurants or bathrooms, that were owned by private parties. These facilities would not be desegregated until the passage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it was a giant step forward for the civil rights movement, placing the weight of the Federal Judiciary squarely behind the forces of desegregation.

Brown is often referred to as Brown I, because the following year, 1955, the Court completed its ruling. In this second Brown decision, "Brown II," the Warren Court ordered the states' compliance with Brown I "with all deliberate speed." Brown II was argued by Robert L. Carter, who had earlier initiated some of the cases consolidated at the Supreme Court into Brown I. Even so, formal compliance with the provisions of these two cases was not expedited, and in the South most public schools would not be desegregated until about 1970 under the Nixon administration. Nearly 20 years after Brown, school desegregation would come to the court's attention again in two cases involving the use of forced busing to racially integrate students across school districts: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971) and Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974).

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

Social implications

Not everyone accepted the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.(D) organized the Massive Resistance movement that included the closing of schools rather than desegregating them.

In Arkansas, Gov. Orval Faubus(D) called out his state's National Guard to block black students' entry to Little Rock High School. President Dwight Eisenhower(R) responded by deploying elements of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Arkansas and by federalizing Faubus' National Guard.

Legal criticism

Public officials in the United States today are nearly unanimous in lauding the ruling. In May 2004, the fiftieth anniversary of the ruling, President George W. Bush spoke at the opening of the "Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site," calling Brown "a decision that changed America for the better, and forever." Most Senators and Representatives issued press releases hailing the ruling.

Still, the Brown decision has not been without its critics. William Rehnquist wrote a memo called "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases" when he was a law clerk in 1952, during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In his memo, Rehnquist argued that "I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed." Rehnquist continued, "To the argument … that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory, in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are."[13][14]

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an African-American, did not attack the decision but wrote in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) that at the very least, Brown I has been misunderstood by the courts.

Brown I did not say that "racially isolated" schools were inherently inferior; the harm that it identified was tied purely to de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. Indeed, Brown I itself did not need to rely upon any psychological or social-science research in order to announce the simple, yet fundamental truth that the Government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race…
Segregation was not unconstitutional because it might have caused psychological feelings of inferiority. Public school systems that separated blacks and provided them with superior educational resources making blacks "feel" superior to whites sent to lesser schools - would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether or not the white students felt stigmatized, just as do school systems in which the positions of the races are reversed. Psychological injury or benefit is irrelevant...
Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. (…) Because of their "distinctive histories and traditions," black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.[15]

Constitutional originalists including Michael McConnell (a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit), and notably Raoul Berger, in his influential 1977 book "Government by Judiciary," make the case that Brown cannot be defended by reference to the original understanding of the 14th Amendment. They support this reading of the 14th amendment by noting that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not ban segregated schools.[16]

The case also has attracted some criticism from more liberal authors. In What 'Brown v. Board of Education' Should Have Said. Jack M. Balkin (law professor at Yale Law School) and others wrote that Chief Justice Warren's reliance on psychological criteria to find a harm against segregated blacks is unnecessary. Quoting Korematsu v. United States they write: "we have developed criteria for evaluating the constitutionality of racial classifications that do not depend upon findings of psychic harm or social science evidence. They are based rather on the principle that distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon equality. "

Other criticisms have centered on Brown II's use of the phrase "all deliberate speed," arguing that the phrase means little and allowed too much time to pass before implementation of the Supreme Court's mandate was required.

Brown II

In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In Brown II the court delegated the task of carrying out the desegregation to District Courts with orders that desegregation be conducted "with all deliberate speed," a phrase traceable to Francis Thompson's poem, The Hound of Heaven. Some supporters of the earlier decision were displeased with this resolution. The language “all deliberate speed” was seen by critics as too ambiguous to ensure reasonable haste for compliance with the court's instruction.

Brown III

In 1978, Topeka attorneys Richard Jones, Joseph Johnson and Charles Scott Jr. (son of the original Brown team member), with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, recruited Linda Brown Smith—who now had her own children in Topeka schools—to become a plaintiff in reopening Brown. They were concerned that the Topeka Public Schools' policy of "open enrollment" had led to and would lead to further re-segregation. They also believed that with a choice of open enrollment, white parents would shift their children to "preferred" schools that would create both predominantly African-American and predominantly white schools within the district. The district court reopened the Brown case after a 25-year hiatus, but denied the plaintiffs' request finding the schools "unitary." In 1989, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided by a 2-1 vote that the vestiges of segregation remained with respect to student and staff assignment. In 1993, the Supreme Court denied the appellant School District's request for certiorari and returned the case District Court Judge Richard Rodgers for implementation of the Tenth Circuit's mandate.

After a 1994 plan was approved and a bond issue passed, additional elementary magnet schools were opened and district attendance plans redrawn which resulted in the Topeka schools meeting court standards of racial balance by 1998. Unified status was eventually granted to Topeka Unified School District #501 on July 27, 1999.

Related cases

  • Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932)* - access to counsel
  • Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954)* - the Fourteenth Amendment protects those beyond the racial classes of white or Negro,
  • Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944)* - non-white voters in primary elections
  • Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948)* - restrictive covenants
  • Mendez v. Westminister School District, 64 F.Supp. 544 (1946)* - prohibits segregating Mexican american children in California.
  • Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)* - segregated law schools in Texas
  • McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)* - prohibits segregation in a public institution of higher learning
  • Briggs v. Elliott, 347 U.S. 483 * Brown Case #1 - Summerton, South Carolina.
  • Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Civ. A. No. 1333* Brown Case #2 - Prince Edward County, Virginia.
  • Gebhart v. Belton, 33 Del. Ch. 144* Brown Case #3 - Claymont, Delaware
  • Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954)* Brown companion case - Washington, DC
  • NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958)* - privacy of NAACP membership lists, and free association of members
  • Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958) – Federal court enforcement of desegregation
  • Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960)* - outlawed racial segregation in public transportation
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964)* - banned racial discrimination in public places, particularly in public accommodations even in private property.
  • Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971)* - established busing as a solution
  • Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974)* - rejected busing across school district lines.

* See Case citation for an explanation of these numbers.


  1. Full text of the decision courtesy of Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  2. Legacy of Brown, Retrieved January 16, 2009.
  3. Brown Foundation Educational Resources Black/White & Brown Documentary Program transcript. Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  4. Brown Foundation Myths vs Truths. Retrieved September 26, 2011
  5. Many people part of local case; Thirteen parents representing 20 children signed up as Topeka plaintiffs Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2004; By By Ric Anderson; The Capital-Journal. Retrieved September 26, 2011
  6. Kansas Historical Society Lucinda Todd Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  7. School facilities for Negroes here held comparable (8/3/51) by Topeka State Journal. Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  8. Brown Foundation Opinions from the courts Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  9. Racial bar down for teachers here, (1/19/56) by Topeka Daily Capital. Retrieved September 26, 2011
  10. First step taken to end segregation, (9/9/53) by Topeka Daily Capital. Retrieved September 26, 2011
  11. Little Effect On Topeka, (5/18/54) by The Capital-Journal. Retrieved September 26, 2011
  12. Breaking barriers: Topekans reflect on role in desegregating nation's schools Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003; By Erin Adamson The Capital-Journal. Retrieved September 26, 2011
  13. Commentary: From Law Clerk to Chief Justice, He Has Slighted Rights, Rehnquist's 1952 memo sheds light on today's court, Cass R. Sunstein, The University of Chicago, The Law School; Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2004. Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  14. Memos may not hold Roberts's opinions, The Boston Globe, Peter S. Canellos, August 23, 2005. Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  15. Find Law Missouri v Jenkins 1995 Retrieved September 26, 2011.
  16. Brennan Center for Justice Retrieved September 26, 2011.

External links

All links retrieved November 21, 2023.


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