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.
Much of the ninety years preceding the Brown
case, race relations in the U.S. had been dominated by racial segregation
. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court
case of Plessy v. Ferguson
, which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were "equal," the segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment
("no state shall... deny to any person... the equal protection of the laws.")
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.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, a class action
suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas
in the U.S. District Court
for the District of Kansas
. The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their twenty children.
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:
- . . . 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 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.
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
(filed in South Carolina
), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County
(filed in Virginia
), Gebhart v. Belton
(filed in Delaware
), and Bolling v. Sharpe
(filed in Washington D.C.
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.
The Topeka middle 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.
The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor of McKinley Burnett, NAACP chapter president who organized the case.
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 Virginia, Senator 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 Desegregation
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.
Backlash and scientific racism
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.
Legal criticism and praise
wrote a memo titled "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases" when he was a law clerk for Justice Robert H. Jackson
in 1952, during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education
decision. In his memo, Rehnquist argued: "I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues but I think Plessy v. Ferguson
was right and should be reaffirmed." Rehnquist continued, "To the argument . . . that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory, in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minorities are. Rehnquist also argued for Plessy
with other law clerks. 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.
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. 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:
- 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, 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.
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 traceable to Francis Thompson
's poem, The Hound of Heaven
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.
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 10th 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 #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, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) Case citation — separate but equal for schools
- Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932) Case citation — access to counsel
- Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954) Case citation — the Fourteenth Amendment protects those beyond the racial classes of white or Negro.
- Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) Case citation — non-white voters in primary elections
- Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla. — 332 U.S. 631 (1948) Case citation — access to taxpayer state funded law schools
- Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948) Case citation — restrictive covenants
- Mendez v. Westminster, 64 F. Supp. 544 (1946) Case citation — prohibits segregating Mexican American children in California
- Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950) Case citation — segregated law schools in Texas
- McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950) Case citation — prohibits segregation in a public institution of higher learning
- Briggs v. Elliott, 347 U.S. 483 (1952) Case citation Brown Case #1 — Summerton, South Carolina.
- Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 103 F. Supp. 337 (1952) Case citation Brown Case #2 — Prince Edward County, Virginia.
- Gebhart v. Belton, 33 Del. Ch. 144 (1952) Case citation Brown Case #3 — Claymont, Delaware
- Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954) Case citation Brown companion case — dealt with the constitutionality of segregation in the District of Columbia, which — as a federal district, not a state — is not subject to the Fourteenth Amendment.
- NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958) Case citation — privacy of NAACP membership lists, and free association of members
- Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958) Case citation – Federal court enforcement of desegregation
- Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960) Case citation — outlawed racial segregation in public transportation
- Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964) Case citation — banned racial discrimination in public places, particularly in public accommodations even in private property.
- Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) Case citation — banned anti-miscegenation laws (race-based restrictions on marriage).
- Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971) Case citation — established bussing as a solution
- Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974) Case citation — rejected bussing across school district lines.
- Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 127 S. Ct. 2738 (2007) Case citation — rejected using race as the sole determining factor for assigning students to schools
- Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education - changed Brown's requirement of desegregation at all "deliberate speed" to one of "desegregation now"
- List of United States Supreme Court Cases
* See Case citation for an explanation of these numbers.
- The most common misconception about Brown v. Board of Education is that the case is solely about Linda Brown and whether she should or should not be able to attend the school nearest her home. In fact, Brown was a consolidation of five different cases, from four states, all of which dealt with the same issue. (A similar case from the District of Columbia was handled separately.) Linda Brown was merely the "poster child," as it were, for some 200 plaintiffs altogether. A dozen attorneys and countless community activists were involved in effort to eliminate "de jure" racial segregation in the public schools.
- The second most common misconception is that the case talks about the hardship that affected Linda Brown because she was not able to attend her local school, because it was for white children only. In fact, the case discusses the hardships collectively faced by all of the children concerned. It also focuses a lot of attention on the psychological well-being of the children in reference to the segregation of schools.
- It is sometimes thought that Oliver Brown was the named plaintiff in the consolidated cases because he was alphabetically first in the list ("Brown" — 'B'). In fact, Darlene Brown (no relation to Oliver Brown) would have been the named plaintiff if that had actually been the case, since "D. Brown" comes before "O. Brown."
- It is also frequently thought that Brown was the first legal challenge to racially segregated schools in the United States. In fact, it was the eleventh case to challenge the 1879 Kansas law, and the third case from Topeka.
- Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality (1975; New York: Vintage Books, 1977). ISBN 0-394-72255-8
- Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of Education (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004). ISBN 0-393-05897-2
- James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-19-515632-3
- Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944)
- Tushnet, Mark (2008). I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press.
- UNESCO, The Race Question (1950)