The 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education was monumental. The Supreme Court overturned the Plessy decision, which allowed racial segregation in public facilities as long as they were equal. Studies have shown that integrated schools improve students’ college degree chances. However, segregation is still problematic due to redlining, housing discrimination, and zoning laws favoring certain neighborhoods.
After a series of class-action suits filed by the NAACP, the Supreme Court took up Brown v Board of Education and four related cases. A three-judge panel ruled against the plaintiffs in 1951, citing Plessy and Gong Lum v Rice, a Supreme Court case that upheld the segregation of Asian Americans in grade schools.
When the Supreme Court heard the case again in 1953, it was split on how to rule. Chief Justice Fred Vinson was not convinced that Plessy should be overturned, and several other justices also leaned toward upholding it. However, most of the Court agreed that segregation was unconstitutional. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed a new Justice to replace Vinson—Earl Warren, who would be instrumental in writing the majority opinion.
In his decision, Warren wrote that racial segregation violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. He also cited psychological studies that showed that children in segregated schools felt inferior to those in integrated schools and that the separate facilities did not produce equality.
The Brown decision was an important milestone in America’s civil rights history. Although desegregation was not immediate, it began to take hold. In the years that followed, a wave of legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and enforcement by the Justice Department, helped to accelerate the process.
Class Action Lawsuits
The NAACP and its legal offshoot, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), devised a systematic attack on the separate but equal doctrine. The plan combined class-action school desegregation lawsuits in nationwide districts under one banner, Brown v Board of Education.
The first case was filed in 1950 by a Washington, D.C., barber named Gardner Bishop. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an active member of his local African-American community, where he served on church boards and in sororities. But he and other Black parents were frustrated with the run-down facilities that served as their children’s schools.
In 1952, the Court consolidated Brown with three other cases: Briggs v Elliott in South Carolina, Davis v County School Board of Prince Edward County in Virginia, and Gebhart v Belton in Delaware. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Despite the Court’s decision, many state and local officials ignored it. Governor Orval Faubus in Arkansas sent the state National Guard to prevent Black students from attending high school in Little Rock. This resulted in a tense standoff until President Eisenhower deployed federal troops, and nine students—known as the “Little Rock Nine”—were allowed to attend Central High School. Despite this resistance, most states eventually began desegregating their schools.
The NAACP was one of several organizations that backed the Brown case. Thurgood Marshall, the chief council for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund (LDF), recruited a team of the nation’s top attorneys. These included Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood Robinson, Oliver Hill, Louis Redding, Charles Bledsoe, and brothers John and Charles Scott. These LDF lawyers, along with James Nabrit and George E. C. Hayes, were part of an impressive array of African-American legal talent that brought a multi-faceted African-American response to the Supreme Court decision.
As the case moved to the Court, it became apparent that segregation was illegal and immoral. The physical facilities that were offered to blacks were often inferior to those of whites. It was a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court ruled that schools were unequal and should be integrated. But, the Court needed to specify how that should be accomplished. The Justices did agree that local federal judges should decide on a desegregation plan “with all deliberate speed.” This high goal and weak enforcement process has characterized most periods of school desegregation since. The case was decided in 1954. By the time it was argued in the Supreme Court, there was considerable evidence that racial segregation had failed to produce educational equality. The majority of the justices agreed that it was unconstitutional.o
The Court’s Decision
The Brown decision overturned Plessy and declared that racial segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It also ruled that laws mandating segregation of schools were unconstitutional. This was a major victory for civil rights activists and the NAACP. The case began in 1951 when local school officials denied Oliver Brown’s daughter admission to the elementary school nearest their home and forced her to ride a bus to a black school that was far away. The NAACP recruited the Browns and other parents from around Topeka to file a class action lawsuit against the school district. The case eventually combined with several other school segregation cases, which the NAACP brought to the Supreme Court as a unified argument.