1954: Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954, in a landmark decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the U.S. Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for students of different races to be unconstitutional. The decision dismantled the legal framework for racial segregation in public schools and Jim Crow laws, which limited the rights of African Americans, particularly in the South.

Segregation in Schools

Elementary schools in Kansas had been segregated since 1879 by a state law allowing cities with populations of 15,000 or more to establish separate schools for black children and white children. African American parents in Kansas began filing court challenges as early as 1881. By 1950, 11 court challenges to segregated schools had reached the Kansas State Supreme Court. None of the cases successfully overturned the state law. 

NAACP Challenges Segregation in Court

n 1950, the Topeka Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized another case, this time a class action suit comprised of 13 families. The basis for the plaintiffs' complaint was that their children were forced to walk or ride buses to reach segregated schools more than a mile away when there were white schools close to their houses. The Topeka NAACP filed suit on their behalf in February of 1951, but by August, the U.S. District Court ruled that, although segregation might be detrimental, it was not illegal. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the judges denied relief on the grounds that the black and white schools in Topeka were equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational qualifications of teachers.
The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952 and were joined by four similar NAACP-sponsored cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The court ruling combined these five cases under the heading Oliver L. Brown et. al. vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, (KS) et. al. Mr. Brown was the assigned lead plaintiff in the Kansas class action suit and became namesake of the court decision. Chief Council for the NAACP Thurgood Marshall argued before court that separate school systems for blacks and whites were inherently unequal, and thus violated the "equal protection clause" of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Marshall also argued that segregated school systems had a tendency to make black children feel inferior to white children, and thus such a system should not be legally permissible.

Separate, but Equal has 'no place'

The Supreme Court Justices heard the case in the spring, but were unable to decide the issue by the end of the court's term in June. The Justices decided to rehear the case in the fall with special attention paid to whether the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools based on race. In September Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who had been a key stumbling block to a unanimous decision, died and was replaced by Governor Earl Warren of California. Warren had supported the integration of Mexican-American students in California school systems in 1947, after Mendez v. Westminster and when Brown v. Board of Education was reheard, Warren was able to bring the Justices to a unanimous decision. On May 14, 1954, Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court, stating, "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."
The decision in Brown v. Board of Education forced the desegregation of public schools in 21 states and intensified resistance in the South, particularly among white supremacist groups and government officials sympathetic to the segregationist cause. In Virginia, U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. started the Massive Resistance movement, which sought to pass new state laws and policies as a means of keeping public schools from being desegregated. In one of the most notorious instances of resistance to the decision, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard in 1957 to keep black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. 
For African Americans, the Supreme Court's decision encouraged and empowered many who felt for the first time in more than half a century that they had a "friend" in the Court. The strategy of education, lobbying, and litigation that had defined the Civil Rights Movement up to that point broadened to include an emphasis on a "direct action." This included boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches, and other tactics that relied on mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance, and civil disobedience all of which would come to define the Modern Civil Rights Movement.

Brown V Board Quick Facts

What is it? A landmark Supreme Court case.

Significance: Ended 'Separate, but equal,' desegregated public schools.

Date: May 17, 1954

Associated Sites: Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site; US Supreme Court Building

Last updated: July 12, 2023