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Brown v Board of Education

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Brown v Board of Education

As recently as 1950, segregation was common across the United States. It was not until the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education four years later that segregation laws began to lose their legal standing.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: Date and Timeline

In 1896, the Supreme Court heard Plessy v. Ferguson. The case centered around Homer Plessy, who had challenged the segregation of railway cars in Louisiana. When convicted of sitting in a “whites-only” car, he sued the judge for violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The equal protection clause guarantees equal treatment under the law:

“No state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” - Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause

The Supreme Court decided against Plessy, creating the “separate but equal” doctrine. The doctrine essentially legalized segregation by affirming that so long as facilities for white and black citizens were the same, they could be separate. The “separate but equal” doctrine became legal precedent, guiding future segregation decisions.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman decided to desegregate the armed forces and fight against discriminatory practices in hiring federal employees. Of course, this was a slow process, and it did not end the practice of segregation across the United States. Civil rights organizations, namely the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), would have to take the matter into their own hands.

The NAACP, founded in 1909, had spent its earlier years fighting for legislation to end segregation in the United States but did not find much luck. By the mid-20th century, they had shifted strategies to fight their case in the judicial system, and they would find success in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Brown v. Board of Education Summary

In 1951, Oliver Brown sued the school district of Topeka for forcing his daughter, Linda Brown, to travel across town to attend her school when a “whites-only” school was far closer. His case and four similar cases from other states came before the Supreme Court in 1952. These cases were:

  • Briggs v. Elliot

  • Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County

  • Gebhart v. Belton

  • Bolling v. Sharpe

The Supreme Court grouped them together under Brown v. Board of Education.

Brown v Board of Education Summary Thurgood Marshall StudySmarterThurgood Marshal, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund provided a legal team led by civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall. Marshall argued that facilities could not actually be “separate but equal.” When it came to schools, schools for white students received far more funding than those for black students. Additionally, he brought in social sciences, arguing that segregated schools gave black children a sense of inferiority.

Thurgood Marshall would go on to become a Supreme Court Justice himself.

After hearing the arguments, the Supreme Court was unable to come to a decision. As a result, Brown v. Board of Education came before the Supreme Court once again in 1953, this time with a new Chief Justice, Earl Warren.

Brown v. Board of Education Ruling

Brown v Board of Education Ruling Earl Warren StudySmarterChief Justice Earl Warren, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast to his predecessor, Fred Vinson, Chief Justice Earl Warren believed in judicial activism rather than judicial restraint. He believed that the Supreme Court held power to make real change in the United States. After rehearing the case in 1953, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Oliver Brown:

“In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” - Chief Justice Earl Warren, Majority Opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954

After almost five decades, the Supreme Court overturned the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. This meant segregation in schools did violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Brown v. Board of Education Ruling: Brown v. Board of Education II

But how was the Supreme Court going to enforce its ruling? In a second ruling in 1955, known as Brown v. Board of Education II, the Supreme Court ruled that any future segregation cases would go through district courts. These district courts as well as local school boards were to be in charge of desegregation which the Supreme Court ruled must happen at “all deliberate speed.”

Brown v. Board of Education Impact

Brown v. Board of Education was a major win for the civil rights movement and gave it momentum. With the Supreme Court under the influence of Chief Justice Earl Warren’s judicial activism, many cases went through the court with the end result of desegregation.

The actions of Rosa Park and the Montgomery Bus Boycott led to the Supreme Court declaring segregation on buses illegal. They did so by affirming a district court case, Browder v. Gayle, in 1956.

However, the vague meaning of “all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board of Education II

allowed local courts and politicians to evade desegregation. In 1956, congressmen from the South issued the “Southern Manifesto” declaring that Brown v. Board of Education was a breach of judicial power.

The Little Rock Nine

Brown v Board of Education Impact Little Rock Nine With Soldiers StudySmarterSoldiers escorting members of the Little Rock Nine, Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas admitted nine black students. This caused mass outrage and caught the attention of Governor Orval Faubus who sent the National Guard to prevent their entrance. President Eisenhower, upholding the Supreme Court’s decision, sent federal troops and nationalized the National Guard. They would escort the students to school for the next semester, protecting them from any altercations.

The Supreme Court responded with Cooper v. Aaron in 1958 which forbade government officials from delaying desegregation. Still, it became common to see federal troops in the South during the 1960s.

Brown v. Board of Education Significance

Brown v. Board of Education was significant in setting a new precedent and galvanizing the civil rights movement. A decade after the ruling, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed up by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But we must remember Brown v. Board of Educations limitations as well as the difficulties of enforcement.

It was not until Runyon v. McCrary in 1976 that desegregation applied to private schools.

On a legal level, it is also significant that, rather than relying solely on precedent, the Supreme Court heard evidence from sociological testing to make a decision. Detractors argued that this was outside the law and took away from the decision’s validity. Arguments over social science evidence still exist to this day.

Brown v. Board of Education - Key Takeaways

  • In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal under the "separate but equal" doctrine. This became legal precedent for future cases.
  • In 1951, Oliver Brown sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas for forcing his daughter to travel across town when an "all-whites" school was far closer. With the help of NAACP lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, the case reached the Supreme Court.
  • Thurgood Marshall argued that segregated facilities could never be equal, and therefore, violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He also cited sociological tests that asserted segregated schools gave Black students a sense of inferiority.
  • The Supreme Court heard the case in 1952 and again in 1953 under a new Chief Justice, Earl Warren. Under the influence of Warren's judicial activism, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Brown in 1954.
  • Brown v. Board of Education II ruled that district courts and school boards were responsible for desegregating with "all deliberate speed." District courts were to handle any future segregation cases.
  • However, courts and politicians in the South worked to delay desegregation. As a result, federal troops had to step in on many occasions.
  • The ruling in Brown v. Board of Education gave fuel to the civil rights movement and led to the end of segregation. It also introduced the role of social science in Supreme Court cases.

Frequently Asked Questions about Brown v Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education is the Supreme Court case that desegregated schools and paved the way for the end of segregation.

Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954.

The Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of Brown, leading to desegregation in schools.

The civil rights movement gained fuel following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

Brown v. Board of Education was important because it desegregated school, paving the way for the end of segregation. 

Final Brown v Board of Education Quiz

Question

What case did Brown v. Board of Education overturn?

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Answer

Plessy v Ferguson

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Question

What organization provided legal representation for Oliver Brown?

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Answer

NAACP

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Question

What doctrine did Brown v. Board of Education overturn?

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Answer

"separate but equal"

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Question

Who wrote the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education?

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Answer

Earl Warren

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Question

What was the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education?

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Answer

9-0

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Question

According to the majority opinion, segregation violated what clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

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Answer

equal protection clause

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Question

Chief Justice Earl Warren advocated for:

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Answer

judicial activism 

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Question

What did Brown v. Board of Education II do?

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Answer

It set the guidelines for enforcing Brown v. Board of Education.

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Question

Following Brown v. Board of Education, schools across the United States immediately started working towards desegregation.

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Answer

False

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Question

When was Brown v. Board of Education decided?

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Answer

1954

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