Brown v. the Board of Education
(Created by David Johnson, History 135, May 2002)


Assignment Source is Images of American Political History, http://teachpol.tcnj.edu/amer_pol_hist/thumbnail453.html
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How did the Brown v. the Board of Education legal case affect public education and American culture?

On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision on a group of related cases involving segregation in public education.  Chief Justice Earl Warren declared in a unanimous decision:  "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."  Segregated school systems in Washington, DC and seventeen states were declared unconstitutional.

This decision, commonly known as Brown v. the Board of Education, challenged long standing beliefs about the place of African-Americans in American culture.  At the time of the American Revolution, slavery was legal in all the American colonies.  Following the lead of Massachusetts, northern states gradually abolished slavery in the late eighteenth century.  Before the Civil War, however, full rights of citizenship were not generally extended to African Americans in the North or South.  The public school movement of the early nineteenth century often excluded free African-Americans in the North as well as the South.

The end of the Civil War led to a redefinition of the role of African-Americans in American culture.  The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery.  Many southern states responded by enacting new laws (Black Codes) designed to maintain an immobile, dependent position for freed slaves in the southern agricultural economy.  In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to African-Americans and guaranteed them due process of law and equal protection of the law.  Many southern states responded to these new post-war realities by ceasing to fund public schools.

The period of Reconstruction, following the Civil War, ended in 1876.  Reconstruction's end meant the withdrawal of federal involvement in the previously confederate states.  Generally, the rights obtained by African-Americans in the 1860s were overlooked, and a new reality of segregation and inequality became normative throughout much of the South as well as in border and northern states.  In a series of decisions after 1876, the Supreme Court eroded the doctrine of equal rights.  In 1896 the court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the separate but equal formula was acceptable and did not deny the equal rights of African-Americans.  Only Justice John Harlan strongly dissented in this decision.

In the period after World War I, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began representing African-Americans in a variety of court actions to gain equality.  Through this path, African-Americans gained the right to vote in Democratic Party primaries, to serve on juries, to attend state supported graduate schools and to ride on desegregated interstate buses and trains.  Social and cultural changes also challenged segregation.  The mobilization of workers and military personnel in World War II further exposed Southerners to less segregated societies and Northerners to the South.  Transitions in industry, the military and the American way of life after the Second World War further eroded the culture of segregation.  In 1948, President Truman fully integrated the Armed Forces and required that civilian agencies of the federal government integrate their workforces.  For most legal scholars, the Brown decision was anticipated and came as no surprise.

In 1952, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeals of several lower court cases requesting that Negro children be allowed to enroll in whites-only schools.  The five cases from Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, DC all contended that school facilities were not equal and that segregated schools inherently violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.  In several of these cases, lower courts had previously upheld the need for truly equal educational facilities and services but failed to overturn the doctrine of separate but equal as established in Plessy v. Ferguson.  The Supreme Court combined all of these cases into Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. (Brown v. the Board of Education) and heard initial arguments in 1952.  Realizing the enormous importance of the case, the Supreme Court requested that the case be re-argued in 1953 on specific questions.  These questions addressed the intent of Congress in framing the Fourteenth Amendment and the understanding of the states in ratifying it.  It has also been argued that the Supreme Court wished to delay the decision until a new chief justice was appointed in 1953.  The decision of May 17, 1954 outlawed segregation but did not provide any immediate relief.  Not until May of 1955, after further deliberation, did the Supreme Court provide an implementation ruling.  The implementation ruling was controversial because of the Court's directive that integration proceed "with all deliberate speed."  While the wording was to allow for unique local issues, many civil rights activists perceived the wording as permissive toward the status quo and resistance.

The response of state and local governments, as well as communities and individuals, was quite varied.  Throughout much of the Deep South, initial disbelief gave way to massive resistance.  In northern states, the last legal vestiges of segregation were quickly repealed.  For the most part, desegregation in border-states proceeded without major problems.  By 1964, the majority of African-American children in border-states were attending integrated schools.  In the southern states, however, integration was generally met with massive social and political resistance.  In 1964, only one percent of African -American children attended integrated schools. By 1988, almost 44% of African American children, nationwide, were attending schools with a majority of white children.  Since 1988, this figure has fallen to less than 33%.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was significant evidence that American schools are becoming more, rather than less segregated for African-American and Latino students.

1865   The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery.

1868   The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship, due process and equal protection  under the law.

1876   Reconstruction ended.

1896   Plessy v. Ferguson:  The Supreme Court established the separate but equal doctrine.

1909   Founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

1948   President Truman integrated the military and civil services.

1950   Linda Brown denied enrollment at a segregated elementary school in Topeka, KS.

1951   The Brown case was heard by the Kansas Supreme Court.

1952   The US Supreme Court accepted the appeal of the Brown case and heard arguments.

1954   The Supreme Court unanimously declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

1955    The Supreme Court issued its implementation ruling.

WWW Sites

There are many good web resources available on school segregation and Brown v. the Board of Education.

The University of Virginia Photo Gallery is an extensive photo collection of segregated schools in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Brown v. Board of Education is a good source for background information and a discussion of the case.

The New York Times (*.pdf) Story of May 18, 1954 is an interesting source for an immediate evaluation of Brown v. the Board of Education on the day after it was handed down.

Separate But Equal reviews the issues related to whether the constitution allows segregation in schools and other public places.

Brown et al v. Board of Education of Topeka et al.  This site allows you to read the Supreme Court's decision.

Read Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson.  In 1896 The Supreme Court approved the doctrine of "separate but equal." Justice John Marshall Harlan, in his lone dissent, foreshadowed the Brown cases.

In 1948 President Truman issued two executive orders ending segregation in the military and the federal civil service.

University integration had been addressed by the Supreme Court before 1954.  Read about these cases.

This site is a good review of the Civil Rights Era which included not only court action, but civil disobedience and congressional legislation.

This Civil Rights Timeline site organizes many events between 1948-98. Another timeline is at www.voicesofcivilrights.org/timeline/aarpTimeline.html.

School Segregation on the Rise reviews a book about the current status of segregation in schools today.

The Fall and Rise of School Segregation is an excellent discussion of school integration and resegregation over the past fifty years.

A New Segregation (*.pdf) describes the current situation for Latino youth in America.

Some more recommended sites


James Paul, The School Segregation Decision (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1954).

Truman Pierce, et al, White and Negro Schools in the South (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 1955).

Harold Fleming and John Constable, What Is Happening in School Integration?  (New York:  Public Affairs Committee Inc, 1956).

Don Shoemaker, ed., With All Deliberate Speed (New York:  Harper & Brothers, 1957).

John Fletcher, The Segregation Case and the Supreme Court (Boston:  n.p., 1958).

Robbins L. Gates, The Making of Massive Resistance (Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1962).

Hubert Humphrey, ed., School Desegregation:  Documents and Commentaries (New York:  Thomas Crowell, 1964).

Reed Sarratt, The Ordeal of Desegregation (New York:  Harper & Row, 1966).

Frank Aquila, ed., Race Equity in Education: The History of School Desegregation 1849-1979 (Bloomington: Indiana University School of Education, 1979).

Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir, Schooling for All (New York:  Basic Books, 1985).

Kofi Lomotey & Charles Teddlie, eds., Forty Years after the Brown Decision: Implications of School Desegregation for U.S. Education (New York: AMS Press, 1996).

Gary Orfield, Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (New York: New Press, Distributed by W. W. Norton, 1996).

Additional Resources
Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights.  (This is available on-line through Lexis-Nexis, or may be available in a local library).

Related Topics
Thurgood Marshall

This page is copyright © 2010, C.T. Evans and D. Johnson
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu