What US Supreme Court decision overturned the separate but equal doctrine in 1954?

The landmark case that desegregated schools was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, a 1954 case in which the Supreme Court Justices unanimously ruled segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren, in writing the Court opinion, declared "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" because they violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. This overturned the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held the concept of "separate but equal" was constitutional.


Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1896)

The state of Louisiana passed a law requiring separate railroad coach cars for African-Americans and Caucasians. Plessy, who was seven-eighths Caucasian, took a seat in the "whites-only" car, refused to move to the "black" car, and was subsequently arrested.

The case was upheld in the lower courts, then petitioned to the US Supreme Court for review in light of the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

The Court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Brown, held that state-sanctioned segregation was constitutional, as long as the separate facilities were equal. As precedent, Brown cited both the Civil Rights Cases, 109 US 3 (1883), which determined the 14th Amendment applied only to states, but not to private individuals or businesses, and the fact that Washington D.C. public schools, under the rule of federal government, was already practicing segregation in education. Justice Brown further concluded that segregation in public accommodations did not constitute discrimination.

Justice Harlan, in an impassioned and prophetic lone dissent, wrote (in part):

"In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case. It was adjudged in that case that the descendants of Africans who were imported into this country and sold as slaves were not included nor intended to be included under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and could not claim any of the rights and privileges which that instrument provided for and secured to citizens of the United States; that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, they were "considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them."

and

"The recent amendments of the Constitution [referring to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments], it was supposed, had eradicated these principles from our institutions. But it seems that we have yet, in some of the States, a dominant race -- a superior class of citizens, which assumes to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race. The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution, by one of which the blacks of this country were made citizens of the United States and of the States in which they respectively reside, and whose privileges and immunities, as citizens, the States are forbidden to abridge.

"Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens. That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana."

and

"The arbitrary separation of citizens on the basis of race while they are on a public highway is a badge of servitude [in violation of the 13th Amendment] wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds."

The majority opinion gave rise to the "separate but equal" doctrine that invaded nearly every aspect of African-Americans' lives. Plessy represented the South's reaction to, and contravention of, the 13th and 14th Amendments. The Court's decision gave tacit permission to the establishment of Jim Crow laws, which violated the civil rights of African-Americans in a way not anticipated by the Constitution.


Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954)

Brown was a consolidation of five cases addressing racial discrimination inherent in the "separate but equal" doctrine. The NAACP argued that prohibiting African-Americans from attending then-all-white schools was de jure (legalized) discrimination prohibited by the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

The question before the Court: "Does the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprive the minority children of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment?"

In a unanimous decision, the Warren Court concluded that the equalization of tangible factors, such as facilities and instructional materials, did not foster equality because intangible factors, such as segregation itself, was stigmatizing and created an inferior class of citizens.

Brown v. Board of Education, (1954) effectively gutted the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, (1896), and established that "separate but equal" is not equal.

Although Brown began the process of integration, it did not effect immediate change. The Court convened a year later to devise a practical method of facilitating desegregation, a topic not addressed until Brown II (Brown v. Board of Education, 349 US 294 (1955).
In Brown II, the Court's instructions were vague and left too much leeway for school districts to delay action. The individual cases were remanded back to their District Courts for orders and enforcement (the US Supreme Court has no enforcement power), with the instruction to "admit the parties to these cases to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed."

Unfortunately, the federal government did little to enforce the Supreme Court ruling until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While society has changed dramatically since Plessy and even since Brown, human nature has not. The quest for equality is an ongoing struggle that demands vigilance and effort from all who support its goals.


For more information on Brown v. Board of Education, see Related Links, below.