BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a
landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared
state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white
students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v.
Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation,
insofar as it applied to public education. Handed down on May 17,
* 1 Background
* 2 Case
* 2.1 Filing and arguments * 2.2 Supreme Court review * 2.3 Unanimous opinion and consensus building * 2.4 Holding * 2.5 Local outcomes
* 3 Social implications
* 3.1 Deep South * 3.2 Upland South * 3.3 North
* 4 Legal criticism and praise * 5 Brown II * 6 Brown III * 7 Related cases * 8 See also * 9 References * 10 Further reading * 11 External links
For much of the sixty years preceding the Brown case, race relations
in the United States had been dominated by racial segregation . This
policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court
Plessy v. Ferguson
The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of racial
separation , while masquerading as providing separate but equal
treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated
inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans.
The United States and the
FILING AND ARGUMENTS
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In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education
of the City of
The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. The Topeka Board of Education operated separate elementary schools under an 1879 Kansas law, which permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in 12 communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been recruited by the leadership of the Topeka NAACP . Notable among the Topeka NAACP leaders were the chairman McKinley Burnett ; Charles Scott, one of three serving as legal counsel for the chapter; and Lucinda Todd .
The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown , was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad , an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. He was convinced to join the lawsuit by Scott, a childhood friend. Brown's daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary , her segregated black school one mile (1.6 km) away, while Sumner Elementary , a white school, was seven blocks from her house.
As directed by the NAACP leadership, the parents each attempted to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools. Linda Brown Thompson later recalled the experience in a 2004 PBS documentary:
... well. like I say, we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out ... to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn't understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.
The case "Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas" was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster. The lawyers, and the National Chapter of the NAACP, also felt that having Mr. Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. The 13 plaintiffs were: Oliver Brown, Darlene Brown, Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emerson, Shirley Fleming, Zelma Henderson , Shirley Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson, and Lucinda Todd. The last surviving plaintiff, Zelma Henderson, died in Topeka, on May 20, 2008, at age 88.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing
the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in
Plessy v. Ferguson
SUPREME COURT REVIEW
The case of
Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the Supreme
Court combined five cases: Brown itself,
Briggs v. Elliott
All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Davis case, the only case of the
five originating from a student protest, began when 16-year-old
Barbara Rose Johns organized and led a 450-student walkout of Moton
High School . The Gebhart case was the only one where a trial court,
affirmed by the
The Kansas case was unique among the group in that there was no contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools' physical plant, curriculum, or staff. The district court found substantial equality as to all such factors. The lower court, in its opinion, noted that, in Topeka, "the physical facilities, the curricula, courses of study, qualification and quality of teachers, as well as other educational facilities in the two sets of schools comparable." The lower court observed that "colored children in many instances are required to travel much greater distances than they would be required to travel could they attend a white school" but also noted that the school district "transports colored children to and from school free of charge" and that "o such service provided to white children."
The NAACP's chief counsel,
Thurgood Marshall —who was later
appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967—argued the case before
the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs. Assistant attorney general Paul
Wilson—later distinguished emeritus professor of law at the
University of Kansas
In December 1952, the Justice Department filed a friend of the court
brief in the case. The brief was unusual in its heavy emphasis on
foreign-policy considerations of the
The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.
The brief also quoted a letter by Secretary of State Dean Acheson lamenting that
The United States is under constant attack in the foreign press, over the foreign radio, and in such international bodies as the United Nations because of various practices of discrimination in this country.
British barrister and parliamentarian Anthony Lester has written that "Although the Court's opinion in Brown made no reference to these considerations of foreign policy, there is no doubt that they significantly influenced the decision."
UNANIMOUS OPINION AND CONSENSUS BUILDING
The members of the U.S. Supreme Court that on May 17, 1954, ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
In spring 1953, the Court heard the case but was unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953, with special attention to whether the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks.
The Court reargued the case at the behest of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter , who used reargument as a stalling tactic, to allow the Court to gather a consensus around a Brown opinion that would outlaw segregation. The justices in support of desegregation spent much effort convincing those who initially intended to dissent to join a unanimous opinion. Although the legal effect would be same for a majority rather than unanimous decision, it was felt that dissent could be used by segregation supporters as a legitimizing counter-argument.
Conference notes and draft decisions illustrate the division of
opinions before the decision was issued. Justices Douglas , Black ,
Burton , and Minton were predisposed to overturn Plessy. Fred M.
Vinson noted that Congress had not issued desegregation legislation;
Stanley F. Reed discussed incomplete cultural assimilation and
states\' rights and was inclined to the view that segregation worked
to the benefit of the African-American community;
Tom C. Clark wrote
that "we had led the states on to think segregation is OK and we
should let them work it out."
Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson
disapproved of segregation, but were also opposed to judicial activism
and expressed concerns about the proposed decision's enforceability.
Chief Justice Vinson had been a key stumbling block. After Vinson died
in September 1953, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl
Warren as Chief Justice. Warren had supported the integration of
Mexican-American students in California school systems following
Mendez v. Westminster
In his reading of the unanimous decision, Justice Warren noted the adverse psychological effects that segregated schools had on African American children.
While all but one justice personally rejected segregation, the judicial restraint faction questioned whether the Constitution gave the Court the power to order its end. The activist faction believed the Fourteenth Amendment did give the necessary authority and were pushing to go ahead. Warren, who held only a recess appointment , held his tongue until the Senate confirmed his appointment.
Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of Negroes. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive Southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion.
Although most justices were immediately convinced, Warren spent some time after this famous speech convincing everyone to sign onto the opinion. Justices Jackson and Reed finally decided to drop their dissent. The final decision was unanimous. Warren drafted the basic opinion and kept circulating and revising it until he had an opinion endorsed by all the members of the Court. Reed was the last holdout and reportedly cried during the reading of the opinion.
Reporters who observed the court holding were surprised by two facts. First, the court made a unanimous decision. Prior to the ruling, there were reports that the court members were sharply divided and might not be able to agree. Second, the attendance of Justice Robert H. Jackson who had suffered a mild heart attack and was not expected to return to the bench until early June 1954. "Perhaps to emphasize the unanimity of the court, perhaps from a desire to be present when the history-making verdict was announced, Justice Jackson was in his accustomed seat when the court convened." Reporters also noted that Dean Acheson, former secretary of state, who had related the case to foreign policy considerations, and Herbert Brownell, the current attorney general, were in the courtroom.
The key holding of the Court was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was harmful to black students and unconstitutional. They found that a significant psychological and social disadvantage was given to black children from the nature of segregation itself, drawing on research conducted by Kenneth Clark assisted by June Shagaloff . This aspect was vital because the question was not whether the schools were "equal", which under Plessy they nominally should have been, but whether the doctrine of separate was constitutional. The justices answered with a strong "no":
oes 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? We believe that it does. ...
"Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect 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 the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial integrated school system." ... 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.
Judgement in the Supreme Court Decision for Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al.
The Topeka junior high schools had been integrated since 1941. Topeka High School was integrated from its inception in 1871 and its sports teams from 1949 on. The Kansas law permitting segregated schools allowed them only "below the high school level".
Soon after the district court decision, election outcomes and the political climate in Topeka changed. The Board of Education of Topeka began to end segregation in the Topeka elementary schools in August 1953, integrating two attendance districts. All the Topeka elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers in January 1956, although existing students were allowed to continue attending their prior assigned schools at their option. Plaintiff Zelma Henderson, in a 2004 interview, recalled that no demonstrations or tumult accompanied desegregation in Topeka's schools:
"They accepted it," she said. "It wasn't too long until they integrated the teachers and principals."
Monroe Elementary was designated a U.S. National Historic Site unit of the National Park Service on October 26, 1992.
Not everyone accepted the
Brown v. Board of Education decision. In
Harry F. Byrd, Sr. organized the Massive Resistance
movement that included the closing of schools rather than
desegregating them. See, for example,
The Southern Manifesto . For
more implications of the Brown decision, see
Texas Attorney General John Ben Shepperd organized a campaign to generate legal obstacles to implementation of desegregation.
Also in 1957, Florida's response was mixed. Its legislature passed an
Interposition Resolution denouncing the decision and declaring it null
and void. But Florida Governor
In North Carolina, there was often a strategy of nominally accepting Brown, but tacitly resisting it. On May 18, 1954 the Greensboro, North Carolina school board declared that it would abide by the Brown ruling. This was the result of the initiative of D.E. Hudgins Jr, a former Rhodes Scholar and prominent attorney, who chaired the school board. This made Greensboro the first, and for years the only, city in the South, to announce its intent to comply. However, others in the city resisted integration, putting up legal obstacles to the actual implementation of school desegregation for years afterward, and in 1969, the federal government found the city was not in compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Transition to a fully integrated school system did not begin until 1971, after numerous local lawsuits and both nonviolent and violent demonstrations. Historians have noted the irony that Greensboro, which had heralded itself as such a progressive city, was one of the last holdouts for school desegregation.
Many Northern cities also had de facto segregation policies, which resulted in a vast gulf in educational resources between black and white communities. In Harlem , New York, for example, not a single new school had been built since the turn of the century, nor did a single nursery school exist, even as the Second Great Migration caused overcrowding of existing schools. Existing schools tended to be dilapidated and staffed with inexperienced teachers. Northern officials were in denial of the segregation, but Brown helped stimulate activism among African-American parents like Mae Mallory who, with support of the NAACP, initiated a successful lawsuit against the city and State of New York on Brown's principles. Mallory and thousands of other parents bolstered the pressure of the lawsuit with a school boycott in 1959. During the boycott, some of the first freedom schools of the period were established. The city responded to the campaign by permitting more open transfers to high-quality, historically-white schools. (New York's African-American community, and Northern desegregation activists generally, now found themselves contending with the problem of white flight , however.)
The intellectual roots of
Plessy v. Ferguson
Both scholarly and popular ideas of hereditarianism played an important role in the attack and backlash that followed the Brown decision. The Mankind Quarterly was founded in 1960, in part in response to the Brown decision.
LEGAL CRITICISM AND PRAISE
However, during his 1971 confirmation hearings, Rehnquist said, "I believe that the memorandum was prepared by me as a statement of Justice Jackson's tentative views for his own use." Justice Jackson had initially planned to join a dissent in Brown. Later, at his 1986 hearings for the slot of Chief Justice, Rehnquist put further distance between himself and the 1952 memo: "The bald statement that Plessy was right and should be reaffirmed, was not an accurate reflection of my own views at the time." In any event, while serving on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist made no effort to reverse or undermine the Brown decision, and frequently relied upon it as precedent.
Chief Justice Warren's reasoning was broadly criticized by
contemporary legal academics with Judge
Some aspects of the Brown decision are still debated. Notably, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas , himself an African American, wrote in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) that at the very least, Brown I has been misunderstood by the courts.
Brown I did not say that "racially isolated" schools were inherently inferior; the harm that it identified was tied purely to de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. Indeed, Brown I itself did not need to rely upon any psychological or social-science research in order to announce the simple, yet fundamental truth that the Government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race. …
Segregation was not unconstitutional because it might have caused psychological feelings of inferiority. Public school systems that separated blacks and provided them with superior educational resources making blacks "feel" superior to whites sent to lesser schools—would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether or not the white students felt stigmatized, just as do school systems in which the positions of the races are reversed. Psychological injury or benefit is irrelevant …
Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. (…) Because of their "distinctive histories and traditions," black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.
Some Constitutional originalists , notably
Raoul Berger in his
influential 1977 book "Government by Judiciary," make the case that
Brown cannot be defended by reference to the original understanding of
the 14th Amendment. They support this reading of the 14th amendment by
noting that the
Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not ban segregated
schools and that the same Congress that passed the 14th Amendment also
voted to segregate schools in the District of Columbia. Other
Michael W. McConnell , a federal judge on the
United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
The case also has attracted some criticism from more liberal authors, including some who say that Chief Justice Warren's reliance on psychological criteria to find a harm against segregated blacks was unnecessary. For example, Drew S. Days has written: "we have developed criteria for evaluating the constitutionality of racial classifications that do not depend upon findings of psychic harm or social science evidence. They are based rather on the principle that 'distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality,' Hirabayashi v. United States , 320 U.S. 81 (1943). . . ."
In his book The Tempting of America (page 82), Robert Bork endorsed the Brown decision as follows:
By 1954, when Brown came up for decision, it had been apparent for some time that segregation rarely if ever produced equality. Quite aside from any question of psychology, the physical facilities provided for blacks were not as good as those provided for whites. That had been demonstrated in a long series of cases … The Court's realistic choice, therefore, was either to abandon the quest for equality by allowing segregation or to forbid segregation in order to achieve equality. There was no third choice. Either choice would violate one aspect of the original understanding, but there was no possibility of avoiding that. Since equality and segregation were mutually inconsistent, though the ratifiers did not understand that, both could not be honored. When that is seen, it is obvious the Court must choose equality and prohibit state-imposed segregation. The purpose that brought the fourteenth amendment into being was equality before the law, and equality, not separation, was written into the law.
In June 1987,
Philip Elman , a civil rights attorney who served as an
associate in the Solicitor General's office during Harry Truman's
term, claimed he and Associate Justice
Felix Frankfurter were mostly
responsible for the Supreme Court's decision, and stated that the
NAACP's arguments did not present strong evidence. Elman has been
criticized for offering a self-aggrandizing history of the case,
omitting important facts, and denigrating the work of civil rights
attorneys who had laid the groundwork for the decision over many
decades. However, Frankfurter was also known for being one of court's
most outspoken advocates of the judicial restraint philosophy of
basing court rulings on existing law rather than personal or political
considerations. Public officials in the United States today are
nearly unanimous in lauding the ruling. In May 2004, the fiftieth
anniversary of the ruling, President
George W. Bush spoke at the
opening of the
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
In an article in Townhall,
Thomas Sowell argued that When Chief
In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools
requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In their
decision, which became known as "Brown II" the court delegated the
task of carrying out school desegregation to district courts with
orders that desegregation occur "with all deliberate speed," a phrase
Supporters of the earlier decision were displeased with this decision. The language "all deliberate speed" was seen by critics as too ambiguous to ensure reasonable haste for compliance with the court's instruction. Many Southern states and school districts interpreted "Brown II" as legal justification for resisting, delaying, and avoiding significant integration for years—and in some cases for a decade or more—using such tactics as closing down school systems, using state money to finance segregated "private" schools, and "token" integration where a few carefully selected black children were admitted to former white-only schools but the vast majority remained in underfunded, unequal black schools.
For example, based on "Brown II," the U.S. District Court ruled that
Prince Edward County,
White students in the county were given assistance to attend
white-only "private academies" that were taught by teachers formerly
employed by the public school system, while black students had no
education at all unless they moved out of the county. But the public
schools reopened after the Supreme Court overturned "Brown II" in
Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County
In 1978, Topeka attorneys Richard Jones, Joseph Johnson and Charles Scott, Jr. (son of the original Brown team member), with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union , persuaded Linda Brown Smith—who now had her own children in Topeka schools—to be a plaintiff in reopening Brown. They were concerned that the Topeka Public Schools' policy of "open enrollment" had led to and would lead to further segregation. They also believed that with a choice of open enrollment, white parents would shift their children to "preferred" schools that would create both predominantly African American and predominantly European American schools within the district. The district court reopened the Brown case after a 25-year hiatus, but denied the plaintiffs' request finding the schools "unitary". In 1989, a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit on 2–1 vote found that the vestiges of segregation remained with respect to student and staff assignment. In 1993, the Supreme Court denied the appellant School District's request for certiorari and returned the case to District Court Judge Richard Rodgers for implementation of the Tenth Circuit's mandate.
After a 1994 plan was approved and a bond issue passed, additional elementary magnet schools were opened and district attendance plans redrawn, which resulted in the Topeka schools meeting court standards of racial balance by 1998. Unified status was eventually granted to Topeka Unified School District No. 501 on July 27, 1999. One of the new magnet schools is named after the Scott family attorneys for their role in the Brown case and civil rights.
Plessy v. Ferguson
* See Case citation for an explanation of these numbers.
* African-American Civil Rights Movement (1896–1954) * Little Rock Nine * Rubey Mosley Hulen , federal judge who made a similar ruling in an earlier case * Timeline of the African American Civil Rights Movement * Ruby Bridges , the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South
* ^ Brown v Board of Education Decision ~ Civil Rights Movement
* ^ Schuck, P.H. (2006). Meditations of a Militant Moderate: Cool
Views on Hot Topics. G - Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary
Subjects Series. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-7425-3961-7
Harald E.L. Prins . "Toward a World without Evil: Alfred
* ^ Peter S. Canellos,Memos may not hold Roberts\'s opinions, The Boston Globe , August 23, 2005. Here is what Rehnquist said in 1986 about his conversations with other clerks about Plessy:
I thought Plessy had been wrongly decided at the time, that it was
not a good interpretation of the equal protection clause to say that
when you segregate people by race, there is no denial of equal
protection. But Plessy had been on the books for 60 years; Congress
had never acted, and the same Congress that had promulgated the 14th
Amendment had required segregation in the District schools. . . . I
saw factors on both sides. . . . I did not agree then, and I certainly
do not agree now, with the statement that Plessy against Ferguson is
right and should be reaffirmed. I had ideas on both sides, and I do
not think I ever really finally settled in my own mind on that. . . .
round the lunch table I am sure I defended it. . . . I thought there
were good arguments to be made in support of it. S. Hrg. 99-1067,
Hearings Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on the
Nomination of Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist to be Chief Justice of
the United States (July 29, 30, 31, and August 1, 1986). * ^ Justice
William O. Douglas wrote: "In the original conference there were only
four who voted that segregation in the public schools was
unconstitutional. Those four were Black, Burton, Minton, and myself."
See Bernard Schwartz, Decision: How the Supreme Court Decides Cases,
page 96 (Oxford 1996). Likewise, Justice
Felix Frankfurter wrote: "I
have no doubt that if the segregation cases had reached decision last
term, there would have been four dissenters—Vinson, Reed, Jackson,
and Clark." Id. Justice Jackson's longtime legal secretary had a
different view, calling Rehnquist's Senate testimony an attempt to
"smear the reputation of a great justice." See Alan Dershowitz,
Telling the Truth About Chief Justice Rehnquist,
Huffington Post ,
September 5, 2005. Retrieved March 15, 2007. See also Felix
Frankfurter on the death of Justice Vinson.
* ^ Adam Liptak, The Memo That Rehnquist Wrote and Had to Disown,
NY Times (September 11, 2005)
* ^ Cases where Justice Rehnquist has cited Brown v. Board of
Education in support of a proposition Archived June 15, 2007, at the
Wayback Machine ., S. Hrg. 99-1067, Hearings Before the Senate
Committee on the Judiciary on the Nomination of Justice William Hubbs
Rehnquist to be Chief Justice of the United States (July 29, 30, 31,
and August 1, 1986). Also see Jeffery Rosen, Rehnquist the Great?,
* ^ McConnell, Michael W. (May 1995). "Originalism and the
* Response to McConnell: Klarman, Michael J. (October 1995).
"Response: Brown, originalism, and constitutional theory: a response
to Professor Mcconnell".
* Response to Klarman: McConnell, Michael W. (October 1995). "Reply:
The originalist justification for Brown: a reply to Professor
* ^ Adam Liptak (November 9, 2009). "From 19th-Century View,