Brown v. Board of Education

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What Was Brown Vs Board Of Education?

The case that came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education was the name given to five different cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the topic of segregation in public schools. These cases were Brown v. Board of Education of TopekaBriggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA.)Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Ethel. While the facts of each case are different, the main issue in each was the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools.

May 17, 1954 marks a defining moment in the United States. On that day, the Supreme Court ruled the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional and gave the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) the most celebrated victory in its history.

While the Brown decision of the Supreme Court was eventually unanimous, it took place only after a hard-fought, multi-year effort to convince all nine justices to reverse the “separate but equal” doctrine supported by their predecessors in the controversial 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Court.

In the 1930s, this movement was conceived by Charles Hamilton Houston, then Dean of Howard Law School, and brilliantly executed by his star student, Thurgood Marshall, who became the first director-counsel of LDF, in a series of cases over the next two decades.

When Did Brown vs Board of Education Start?

Brown itself, beginning in December 1952, was not a single case, but rather a concerted group of five cases in Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia, and the District of Columbia against school districts. Marshall employed the finest lawyers in the country, including Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, Louis Redding, Charles, and John Scott, Harold R. Boulware, James Nabrit, and George E.C. Hayes, to litigate these cases.

These LDF attorneys, along with William Coleman, the first Black person to serve as a Supreme Court law clerk, were supported by a brain trust of legal experts, including future federal district court judges Louis Pollack and Jack Weinstein. LDF also focused on research by historians, such as John Hope Franklin, and a number of arguments in social science.

This study included the now-famous doll studies by psychologist Kenneth Clark, which revealed the influence of segregation on Black children. Clark discovered that Black children were led to believe that Black dolls were inferior to white dolls and that they were inferior to their white peers by extension.

What Happened in Brown vs Board of Education?

As the cases came to the Supreme Court in 1952, all five cases were combined under the name of Brown v. Board of Education by the Court. The case was personally argued before the Court by Marshall. While he addressed a number of legal concerns on appeal, the most common one was that separate Black and white school systems were fundamentally unequal and thus violated the “equal protection clause” of the United States’ Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

In addition, he also argued that segregated school systems appeared to make Black children feel inferior to white children, based on sociological studies, such as that conducted by social scientist Kenneth Clark, and other evidence, and that such a system should not be legally permissible.

The Justices of the Supreme Court, meeting to discuss the case, found that they were profoundly divided over the issues presented. Although most decided to reverse Plessy and declare segregation to be illegal in public schools, they had different reasons for doing so. Unable to find a settlement by June 1953 (the end of the 1952-1953 term of the Court), the Court agreed in December 1953 to hear the case again.

Wrapping up his presentation to the Court at that second hearing, Marshall emphasized that segregation was rooted in the need to keep “the people who were formerly in slavery as close to that stage as possible.” Even with such strong claims from Marshall and other LDF attorneys, the behind-the-scenes lobbying of the newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren took about five months to campaign for the newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren.

However, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died during the ensuing months and was succeeded by California Gov. Earl Warren. Chief Justice Warren was willing to do something when the case was reheard in 1953 that his predecessor did not have, i.e. to have all the Justices to agree to accept a majority decision declaring unconstitutional segregation in public schools.

He delivered the Court’s opinion on May 14, 1954, stating that “We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place in the field of public education. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Recognizing that its decision was controversial, the Court took another year to issue an order implementing the Brown II decision. Back then, a firm timeline for eliminating segregation was unable to be set by the Court. It ruled only that “with all deliberate speed, public schools desegregate.” Unfortunately, desegregation was neither deliberate nor speedy.  In the face of fierce and often violent “massive resistance, ” LDF sued hundreds of school districts across the country to vindicate the promise of Brown. 

It was not until the ensuing victories of LDF in Green v. County School Board (1968) and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) that the Supreme Court provided mandates to abolish “root and branch” segregation, specifying concrete factors to be taken into consideration to eradicate the consequences of segregation, and ensuring that federal district courts had the power to do so.

Who Won Brown vs Board of Education?

The answer is a complicated one. And now, Brown’s job is far from completed. On federal court dockets, more than 200 school desegregation cases remain open; LDF alone has nearly 100 of these instances. Latest Supreme Court rulings have made it harder for school desegregation to be accomplished and sustained.

Public school students are becoming more culturally segregated as a result of these changes and other factors than at any time in the past four decades. This backsliding makes it even more important for LDF to continue to uphold the Brown values and to lead the continuing fight to provide children with an equal opportunity to learn in each of the classrooms of our country.

“As Senator Obama noted in a 2008 Philadelphia speech, “segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they got, then and now, helps to justify the pervasive difference in achievement between Black and white students today.”

What Was the Impact of Brown vs Board of Education?

While the judgment of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board failed to accomplish school desegregation on its own, the ruling (and the steadfast opposition to it across the South) fueled the United States’ burgeoning civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955, a year after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The Montgomery bus boycott sparked her arrest and would lead to other boycotts, sit-ins and marches (many led by Martin Luther King Jr.), in a campaign that would finally lead to the overthrow of Jim Crow laws throughout the South.

The process of desegregation began in earnest with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, assisted by its implementation by the Justice Department. The 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Equal Housing Act of 1968 were followed by this seminal piece of civil rights legislation.

In 1976, the Supreme Court released another landmark decision in Runyon v. McCrary, finding that federal civil rights laws were violated even by private, non-sectarian schools that refused entry to students on the basis of race.

The Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education set the legal framework that would be used to abolish legislation imposing segregation in other public buildings by overturning the ‘separate yet equal’ doctrine.

But the historic verdict fell short of achieving its primary goal of integrating the public schools of the country, despite its undoubted effect.

The debate persists today, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, about how to combat racial inequality in the school system of the country, primarily focused on residential trends and resource disparities between schools in affluent and economically deprived districts across the nation.

Citations
1- https://www.history.com/topics/Black-history/brown-v-board-of-education-of-topeka
2- https://www.britannica.com/event/Brown-v-Board-of-Education-of-Topeka
3- https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/history-brown-v-board-education-re-enactment
4- https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/supremecourt/rights/landmark_brown.html

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