Asked in Brown v. Board of Education
What was Brown v Board of Education about?
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, (1954) was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court 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.
Brown v. Board of Education was a class action suit representing the collective rights of thirteen Topeka, Kansas, parents and their twenty-one children. The Court consolidated four other cases into Brown: Briggs v. Elliot (South Carolina); Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Virginia); Gebhart v. Belton (Delaware); and Bolling v. Sharpe (Washington, D.C.).
All five cases, although originating in different states and representing slightly different facts, were sponsored by the NAACP, and argued before the Court by their Chief Counsel, Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1967.
The cases, together, illustrated different aspects of problems inherent in de jure segregation (segregation ordered by law, rather than by uncontrollable circumstances). The Topeka case did not allege, as commonly believed, that the African-American school was inferior in quality, but that a segregated education deprived the minority of equal educational opportunity and was psychologically damaging because it promoted a feeling of inferiority among the African-American children.
On the opening page of the Court's opinion, Chief Justice Warren laid out the following:
"(c) Where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. P. 493.
"(d) Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal. Pp. 493-494.
"(e) The "separate but equal" doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, has no place in the field of public education. P. 495. [347 U.S. 483, 484]..."
(See Related Links for full opinion)
History of Linda Brown and the Topeka School District
Linda Brown, a bright 8-year-old third-grader living in an integrated neighborhood in the Topeka School District, attended a Monroe Elementary, a segregated primary school for African-American children. In order to get to school, she had to walk seven blocks to a bus stop, then ride a bus one mile to school, bypassing Sumner Elementary, an all-white school just five blocks from her house.
The Topeka School District was unusual in that only its elementary schools were segregated, a practice allowed by an 1879 Kansas law that permitted, but did not require, school districts to maintain segregated schools in towns and cities with populations over 15,000.
The district's middle school had been integrated in 1941; the high school had been integrated since it opened in 1871, but kept its sports program and social activities separate.
McKinley Burnett, head of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a social activism group) had already decided to fight school segregation, and began recruiting parents from the local community. Oliver Brown's friend, Charles Scott, a Topeka civil rights attorney, urged Brown to participate. The lawsuit bearing Oliver Brown's name included twelve other parents and their 21 children. The NAACP sponsored the suit, providing free legal advice and counsel to the Topeka families.
NAACP leaders encouraged the families to attempt to enroll their children at nearby Sumner Elementary in the Fall of 1950, fully expecting their enrollment would be denied. And it was.
A three-judge panel initially heard the case in District court, and found in favor of the school district, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. While the panel acknowledged segregation in education had a negative effect on African-American children, it refused to grant relief under the law, stating black and white schools in Topeka were substantially similar in quality, curriculum and teacher qualifications.
The NAACP followed the appeals process all the way to the Supreme Court, where Marshall was compelled to argue the case twice, once in 1952 and once in 1953, because the Supreme Court Justices wanted briefs from each of the five attorneys answering five questions regarding their opinions as to whether Congress had public school segregation in mind when they ratified the 14th Amendment.
In deciding for the plaintiffs in Brown, Chief Justice Warren eloquently concluded:
"To separate them [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone…"
After the landmark decision, Topeka integrated its elementary schools with no protest from teachers or parents. As one plaintiff, Zelma Henderson, remembers:
"They accepted it," she said. "It wasn't too long until they integrated the teachers and principals."
For more detailed information on the case, see the Related Link, below. the civil rights movement.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)