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Brown v. Board of Education

347 U.S. 483 (1954)

(Separate but Equal)

 
 

Context:

Although the name of the case lists the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, this case drew attention from a number of cities regarding school segregation by race. The Supreme Court heard five cases and consolidated them into the Brown decision. Thurgood Marshall, who ran the NAACP Education and Legal Defense Fund, served as the attorney for the cases heard. Marshall would later go on to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice. For decades, the Supreme Court had held up statutes allowing racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws. Previously, the court had followed the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896: public and private facilities can be segregated so long as they provide the same amenities. In theory, facilities were the same. In practice, however, the separate facilities were grossly unequal. The Cold War with the Soviet Union also provides historical context for this case, segregated schools did not bode well for a united American image. A class action lawsuit was filed in 1951 by the parents of 20 children who went to school in the Topeka, Kansas District, calling for the reversal of the segregation policy; claiming that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In Chief Justice Earl Warren’s famous opinion, he wrote that separate is “inherently unequal”, dramatically changing the precedent surrounding racial segregation, overturning Plessy’s doctrine. Chief Justice Warren’s opinion was written in an understandable language as opposed to the lofty tone that many court decisions are written in, so that the American people could understand the decision as intended. The court ruled that racial segregation was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and required that integration occur, however did not lay out how schools should begin integrating, which would later prove troublesome. Brown’s decision could have been different-- just days before it was scheduled to be reheard in the fall of 1953, Chief Justice Vinson, who held that Plessy should stand, passed away and was replaced by Warren, who penned the famous decision. Although schools in Topeka, Kansas were quickly integrated, integration was not accepted nationwide, it took decades of legal and political battles to do so. Brown II, an extension of the first case, would be handed down in 1955, delegating similar cases to district courts and ordering that desegregation orders be carried out “with deliberate speed”. In 1993, the Supreme Court denied Brown III’s writ of cert when attorneys connected to Topeka schools in 1978 became concerned that the district’s “open school” policy would indirectly lead to segregation.


Facts:

Minors of the Negro race, through their legal representatives, seek the aid of the courts in obtaining admission to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis. In each instance, they had been denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to race. This segregation was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

Issue:

Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?

Reasoning:

Reargument was largely devoted to the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It covered exhaustively consideration of the Amendment in Congress, ratification by the states, then existing practices in racial segregation, and the views of proponents and opponents of the Amendment. This discussion and our own investigation convince us that, although these sources cast some light, it is not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced. At best, they are inconclusive. The most avid proponents of the post-War Amendments undoubtedly intended them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Their opponents, just as certainly, were antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wished them to have the most limited effect. What others in Congress and the state legislatures had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

An additional reason for the inconclusive nature of the Amendment's history, with respect to segregated schools, is the status of public education at that time. In the South, the movement toward free common schools, supported by general taxation, had not yet taken hold. Education of white children was largely in the hands of private groups. Education of Negroes was almost nonexistent, and practically all of the race were illiterate. In fact, any education of Negroes was forbidden by law in some states. Today, in contrast, many Negroes have achieved outstanding success in the arts and sciences as well as in the business and professional world. It is true that public school education at the time of the Amendment had advanced further in the North, but the effect of the Amendment on Northern States was generally ignored in the congressional debates. Even in the North, the conditions of public education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states, and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence, it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on public education.

Here, there are findings below that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other "tangible" factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.

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.

In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:

"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system." 

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

Justice Warren decides Brown v. Board of Education

Holding:

In the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. 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.


 
 

Key Takeaway

The doctrine of “separate but equal” in public education was overturned.


Court Syllabus:

Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment -- even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors of white and Negro schools may be equal.

(a) The history of the Fourteenth Amendment is inconclusive as to its intended effect on public education.

(b) The question presented in these cases must be determined, not on the basis of conditions existing when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but in the light of the full development of public education and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.

(c) Where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

(d) Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal.

(e) The "separate but equal" doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson has no place in the field of public education.

(f) The cases are restored to the docket for further argument on specified questions relating to the forms of the decrees.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Warren, joined by unanimous