What Was Brown V. Board of Education?

Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark case that went before the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that segregation in schools is unconstitutional.

History of Legalized Segregation
The first time that the Supreme Court decided in favor of segregated schools was in 1896. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled that it’s constitutional to determine something is "separate but equal." In this particular case, Homer Plessy broke the law purposefully and sat in a whites-only section of a train rather than in the blacks-only section. This was part of his activism for equality.

When Plessy refused to leave the whites-only section, he was arrested and jailed. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, and the ruling was used to justify every form of segregation in place, including in the educational sector. Segregation also included transportation and other public facilities.

Challenging Plessy v. Ferguson
Many legal cases led to the eventual Brown v. Board of Education. One of these is Murray v. Maryland in 1936 when Thurgood Marshall challenged the University of Maryland School of Law for rejecting all black candidates. Marshall represented Donald Murray in this case. Marshall argued that the black law schools were not equal to the white law schools, eventually winning an appeal to attend Maryland’s law program.

Brown v. Board of Education Overview
In fact, the Brown v. Board of Education is a consolidation of five cases that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, represented by Thurgood Marshall, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Other cases included were Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County, Briggs v. Elliot, Gebhart v. Ethel and Bolling v. Sharpe. All of these cases involved black children being denied access to schools solely based on their race. This meant many black children were forced to travel long distances to attend schools that were inferior to their neighborhood schools.

The Outcome
The case was first presided over by Chief Justice Fred Vinson. However, after he passed away, Chief Justice Earl Warren took over. The outcome was announced on May 14, 1954. The final decision, which was unanimous, was that the "separate but equal" clause did not apply to educational sectors since the educational facilities were "inherently" unequal.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka II
In 1955, the Supreme Court announced that all segregated schools must be desegregated at "all deliberate speed." In the next five years, more than 200 school desegregation hearings were brought before the Court.

Conflict During De-Segregation
Although the Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, it would be years before black children could attend desegregated schools safely. Notably, in 1957, nine black students who began attending Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas required the protection of 1,000 101st Airborne Division paratroopers and National Guard.

It wasn’t until 1969 when the Supreme Court dismantled the previous "all deliberate speed" clause for desegregation and called for the immediate desegregation of schools in Mississippi. Eventually, by 1988, more than 45 percent of black students in the country attend schools that are a white majority-population school or district. However, in 2000, the Harvard Civil Rights Project discovered that schools were more segregated in 2000 than were in 1970.