Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court, which overturned earlier rulings going back to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, by declaring that state laws that established separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court's unanimous (9-0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This victory paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.
The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but relatively equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 that prohibited it. Brown was influenced by UNESCO's 1950 Statement, signed by a wide variety of internationally-renowned scholars, titled The Race Question. This declaration denounced previous attempts at scientifically justifying racism as well as morally condemning racism. Another work that the Supreme Court cited was Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration. The research performed by the educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark also influenced the Court's decision. The Clark's "doll test" studies presented substantial arguments to the Supreme Court about how segregation had an impact on black schoolchildren's mental status.
The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by the Topeka Board of Education under an 1879 Kansas law, which permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in twelve 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:
The Kansas 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. Also, it was felt by lawyers with the National Chapter of the NAACP, that having Mr. Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices because Mr. Brown had an intact, complete family, as opposed to someone who was a single parent head of household. The thirteen 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 the age of 88.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, , which had upheld a state law requiring "separate but equal" segregated facilities for blacks and whites in railway cars. The three-judge District Court found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect upon negro children, but denied relief on the ground that the negro and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational qualifications of teachers.
All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Davis case, the only case of the five originating from a student protest, began when sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose Johns organized and led a 450-student walkout of Moton High School.
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 Delaware case was unique in that the District Court judge in Gebhart ordered that the black students be admitted to the white high school due to the substantial harm of segregation and the differences that made the schools separate but not equal. 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 — conducted the state's ambivalent defense in his first appellate trial.
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:
The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor of McKinley Burnett, NAACP chapter president who organized the case.
In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out his state's National Guard to block black students' entry to Little Rock High School. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by deploying elements of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Arkansas and by federalizing Faubus' National Guard.
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 Thomas LeRoy Collins refused to sign it arguing that the state must follow the Supreme Court's ruling. Tourism and Florida's popular image probably played a role in its muted response.
In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace personally blocked the door to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two black students. This became the infamous "Stand at the Schoolhouse Door," where Wallace personally backed his "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" policy that he had stated in his 1963 inaugural address. He moved aside only when confronted by federal marshals and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
The intellectual roots of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark United States Supreme Court decision, upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation, under the doctrine of "separate but equal" were, in part, tied to the scientific racism of the era. However, the popular support for the decision was more likely a result of the racist beliefs held by many whites at the time. In deciding Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rejected the ideas of scientific racists about the need for segregation, especially in schools. The Court buttressed its holding by citing (in footnote 11) social science research about the harms to black children caused by segregated schools.
Both scholarly and popular ideas of scientific racism played an important role in the attack and backlash that followed the Brown decision. The Mankind Quarterly is a journal that has published scientific racism. It was founded in 1960, in part in response to the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that ordered the desegregation of U.S. schools. Many of the publication's contributors, publishers, and Board of Directors espouse academic hereditarianism. The publication is widely criticized for its extremist politics, antisemitic bent and its support for scientific racism.
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.
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. Other originalists, including Michael W. McConnell, a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in his article "Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions," argue that the Radical Reconstructionists who spearheaded the 14th Amendment were in favor of desegregated southern schools.
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:
In June 1987, a civil rights attorney—who served associate in the Solicitor General's office during Harry Truman's term—Philip Elman, claimed he and 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. 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", calling Brown "a decision that changed America for the better, and forever. Most Senators and Representatives issued press releases hailing the ruling.
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, Virginia did not have to desegregate immediately. When another court case in 1959 ruled that the county's schools finally had to desegregate, the county board of supervisors stopped appropriating money for public schools which remained closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964. 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.
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 #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.
* See Case citation for an explanation of these numbers.
Commemorating Brown: this is a list of events from selected institutions leading up to the 50th anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education. (Brown@50: how far have we come?(Calendar)
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Going Back in Time: How the Kansas Board of Education's Removal of Evolution from the State Curriculum Violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause
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