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Brown vs Board of Education


One of the most important decisions of the Civil Rights Movement

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        On May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court ended federally sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools by ruling unanimously that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." A groundbreaking case, Brown not only overturned the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had declared "separate but equal facilities" constitutional, but also provided the legal foundation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Although widely perceived as a revolutionary decision, Brown was in fact the culmination of changes both in the Court and in the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. (see case summaries below)


        The Supreme Court had become more liberal in the years since it decided Plessy, largely due to appointments by Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Though still all-white, the Court had issued decisions in the 1930s and 1940s that rendered racial separation illegal in certain situations.


        Now consolidated under the name Brown v. Board of Education, the five cases came before the Supreme Court in December, 1952. The lead attorney on the case, Thurgood Marshall, and his colleagues wrote that states had no valid reason to impose segregation, that racial separation — no matter how equal the facilities — caused psychological damage to black children, and that "restrictions or distinctions based upon race or color" violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


        The opinion, written by Warren and read on May 17, 1954, was short and straightforward. It echoed Marshall's expert witnesses, stating that for African American schoolchildren, segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone." The decision went on to say that segregation had no valid purpose, was imposed to give blacks lower status, and was therefore unconstitutional based on the Fourteenth Amendment.


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          The 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Oliver L. Brown et.al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka (KS) et.al. is among the most significant judicial turning points in the development of our country. Originally led by Charles H. Houston, and later Thurgood Marshall and a formidable legal team, it dismantled the legal basis for racial segregation in schools and other public facilities.


          By declaring that the discriminatory nature of racial segregation ... "violates the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws," Brown v. Board of Education laid the foundation for shaping future national and international policies regarding human rights.


          Brown v. Board of Education was not simply about children and education. The laws and policies struck down by this court decision were products of the human tendencies to prejudge, discriminate against, and stereotype other people by their ethnic, religious, physical, or cultural characteristics. Ending this behavior as a legal practice caused far reaching social and ideological implications, which continue to be felt throughout our country. The Brown decision inspired and galvanized human rights struggles across the country and around the world. (Click here for the full text of the Brown Decision)


          What this legal challenge represents is at the core of United States history and the freedoms we enjoy. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown began a critical chapter in the maturation of our democracy. It reaffirmed the sovereign power of the people of the United States in the protection of their natural rights from arbitrary limits and restrictions imposed by state and local governments. These rights are recognized in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.


          While this case was an important historic milestone, it is often misunderstood. Over the years, the facts pertaining to the Brown case have been overshadowed by myths and mischaracterizations:

  • Brown v. Board of Education was not the first challenge to school segregation. As early as 1849, African Americans filed suit against an educational system that mandated racial segregation, in the case of Roberts v. City of Boston.

  • Oliver Brown, the case namesake, was just one of the nearly 200 plaintiffs from five states who were part of the NAACP cases brought before the Supreme Court in 1951. The Kansas case was named for Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man head the plaintiff roster.

          The Brown decision initiated educational and social reform throughout the United States and was a catalyst in launching the modern Civil Rights Movement. Bringing about change in the years since the Brown case continues to be difficult. But the Brown v. Board of Education victory brought this country one step closer to living up to its democratic ideas.


       The Supreme Court combined five cases under the heading of Brown v. Board of Education, because each sought the same legal remedy. The combined cases emanated from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, DC. The following describes those cases:


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---   Click on name for a more detailed analysis of each case   ---


Virginia – Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County


One of the few public high schools available to African Americans in the state was Robert Moton High School in Prince Edward County. Built in 1943, it was never large enough to accommodate its student population. Eventually hastily constructed tar paper covered buildings were added as classrooms. The gross inadequacies of these classrooms sparked a student strike in 1951. Organized by sixteen year old Barbara Johns, the students initially sought to acquire a new building with indoor plumbing. The NAACP soon joined their struggles and challenged the inferior quality of their school facilities in court. Although the U.S. District Court ordered that the plaintiffs be provided with equal school facilities, they were denied access to the white schools in their area. This class action case was named for Dorothy Davis.


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Delaware – Belton v. Gebhart (Bulah v. Gebhart)


First petitioned in 1951, these local cases challenged the inferior conditions of two black schools designated for African American children. In the suburb of Claymont, African American children were prohibited from attending the area’s local high school. Instead, they had to ride a school bus for nearly an hour to attend Howard High School in Wilmington. Located in an industrial area of the state’s capital city, Howard High School also suffered from a deficient curriculum, pupil-teacher ratio, teacher training, extra curricular activities program, and physical plant. In the rural community of Hockessin, African American students were forced to attend a dilapidated one-room school house and were not provided transportation to the school, while white children in the area were provided transportation and a better school facility. In both cases, Louis Redding, a local NAACP attorney, represented the plaintiffs, African American parents. Although the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the decision did not apply to all schools in Delaware. These class action cases were named for Ethel Belton and Shirley Bulah.


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Kansas – Brown v. Board of Education


In 1950 the Topeka NAACP, led by McKinley Burnett, set out to organize a legal challenge to an 1879 State law that permitted racially segregated elementary schools in certain cities based on population. For Kansas this would become the 12th case filed in the state focused on ending segregation in public schools. The local NAACP assembled a group of 13 parents who agreed to be plaintiffs on behalf of their 20 children. Following direction from legal counsel they attempted to enroll their children in segregated white schools and all were denied. Topeka operated eighteen neighborhood schools for white children, while African American children had access to only four schools. In February of 1951 the Topeka NAACP filed a case on their behalf. Although this was a class action it was named for one of the plaintiffs Oliver Brown.


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South Carolina - Briggs v. Elliot


In Claredon County, the State NAACP first attempted, unsuccessfully and with a single plaintiff, to take legal action in 1947 against the inferior conditions African American students experienced under South Carolina’s racially segregated school system. By 1951, community activist Rev. J.A. DeLaine, convinced African American parents to join the NAACP efforts to file a class action suit in U.S. District Court. The Court found that the schools designated for African Americans were grossly inadequate in terms of buildings, transportation and teacher’s salaries when compared to the schools provided for whites. An order to equalize the facilities was virtually ignored by school officials and the schools were never made equal. This class action case was named for Harry Briggs, Sr.


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Washington, DC – Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe


Eleven African American junior High School students were taken on a field trip to the cities new modern John Phillip Sousa school for whites only. Accompanied by local activist Gardner Bishop, who requested admittance for the students and was denied, the African American students were ordered to return to their grossly inadequate school. A suit was filed on their behalf in 1951. After review with the Brown case in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled "segregation in the District of Columbia public schools…is a denial of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment…" This class action case was named for Spottswood Bolling.


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[History of CORE - Text  version] [Important Civil Rights Decisions]


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