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Published: April 3, 2011

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in American public schools and signaled the end to racial segregation in all public facilities in the United States. Although popularly referred to as one case, Brown was actually a consolidation of four different cases, each of which was, by itself, the culmination of 16 years of litigation involving five additional cases heard before the Supreme Court. Moreover, there were actually two Brown cases, usually referred to as Brown I and Brown II. In Brown I, handed down in 1954, the Court declared racial segregation in schools a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling stated, “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” A year later, Brown II held local school districts responsible for implementing Brown I and ordered them to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed.”
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a consolidation of lawsuits brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against school boards in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware, as well as Kansas. The other cases were, respectively, BRIGGS V. ELLIOT, Gebbart v. Belton and DAVIS V. COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD. All four cases and Brown II had their origins in the mid-1930s, when a group of NAACP legal strategists headed by THURGOOD MARSHALL devised a long-term strategy for ending segregation. At the time, race riots were breaking out in cities across the United States. Marshall, who later become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, recognized that neither the legal nor social system in the U.S. was prepared to sweep away centuries of racial segregation. Rather than attempt the impossible, Marshall and his colleagues devised a longterm scheme to lay a legal groundwork of court decisions that would undermine the “separate but equal” doctrine, which had been established in the historic PLESSY V. FERGUSON decision in 1896. In that decision, the Court had ruled that states had the constitutional right to segregate the races as long as it provided “separate but equal” facilities. The result was the passage of laws in 17 states and the District of Columbia that segregated blacks from whites in all public facilities, including schools. The states that passed such laws were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Although they passed no laws mandating segregation, eight states (Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico and Wyoming) permitted it at the discretion of local communities. By the end of World War II, only 12 states had banned segregation.
Marshall began the campaign to undermine Plessy in 1938, with MISSOURI EX REL GAINES V. CANADA. In that case, the Court held that when a state provides legal training to any of its citizens, it must do so for all, and that providing tuition assistance to black students to attend law school out of state did not meet the same standard. In 1940, the case of ALSTON V. SCHOOL BOARD OF THE CITY OF NORFOLK produced a ruling that different salary schedules for equally qualified black and white teachers with the same job assignments was a violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1948, the NAACP won SIPUEL V. BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA, in which the Court ruled that Oklahoma had to provide legal education to blacks as well as to whites and to do so for blacks as soon as it offered such education to whites. Two years later, the NAACP won a decision in Sweatt v. Painter that a separate law school for blacks in Texas did not provide the same legal education as that given to whites at the University of Texas Law School, where black entry was prohibited. And in the same year, 1950, the Court also ruled in favor of the NAACP in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents. In that case, the Court held that the state had denied equal protection under the law to a black student whom a graduate school in education had segregated from white students.
Recognizing that the Sweatt and McLaurin decisions had both held segregation to be a denial of equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, Marshall and his NAACP legal team believed they had enough precedents to overturn Plessy. To help them do so, KENNETH B. CLARK, a distinguished sociologist who, like Marshall, was a graduate of the all-black HOWARD UNIVERSITY, documented the harmful social and educational effects of segregation on black children. On May 17, 1954, the all-white U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” (See also SEGREGATION.)
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