Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that, since 1896, had made racial segregation legal in public facilities.
On May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court ended federally-sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools by ruling unanimously that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." A groundbreaking case, Brown not only overturned the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had declared "separate but equal facilities" constitutional, but also provided the legal foundation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Although widely perceived as a revolutionary decision, Brown was in fact the culmination of changes both in the Court and in the strategies of integration's most powerful legal champion, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The Supreme Court had become more liberal in the years since it decided Plessy, largely due to appointments by Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Though still all-white, the Court had issued decisions in the 1930s and 1940s that rendered racial separation illegal in certain situations. In Smith v. Allright (1944), it declared segregated political primaries unconstitutional. Four years later, in Shelly v. Kraemer (1948), the Court ruled that states could not enforce racially restrictive real-estate covenants. Over the next few years, often in response to cases brought by the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Court further chipped away at the legal basis for state-sanctioned segregation.
Pushing the Court to this point had taken the NAACP more than forty years. Since its founding in 1909, the organization had legally challenged racial inequality. Although for many years NAACP lawyers did not attack segregation itself, they found fertile ground in the rampant inequity it had spawned. This was particularly true in education. In 1929, for instance, the state of Alabama spent $36 per white student and only $10 per black student in its public schools. Such imbalance was widespread in the southern states, where black schoolchildren endured overcrowded classrooms, insufficient libraries, undertrained teachers, and a lack of indoor plumbing. The NAACP's strategy throughout the 1930s demanded only that local governments provide African American children with facilities equal to those enjoyed by white children. Basing its lawsuits on individual states' or counties' failures to conform to Plessy's formula of "separate but equal" in public accommodations, the NAACP won nearly every case.
On the national level, though, the NAACP, led by its first full-time legal counsel Charles H. Houston, chose to focus on graduate and professional rather than elementary education. By demanding equal facilities on the graduate level, Houston hoped to force states into a difficult decision: either build prohibitively expensive new black professional schools or allow qualified African Americans to enroll in previously all-white law, medical, and other graduate schools. In 1936, Houston won a significant victory when Maryland's Supreme Court ordered the segregated University of Maryland Law School to admit Donald Murray, an African American student, rather than send him out of state for his legal education. A similar case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1938: in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, a 6-2 majority found that the University of Missouri, by denying a black student admission to its law school — though it did create a separate black law school in a building that also housed a movie theatre and a hotel — had created an unfair "privilege...for white law students" that it did not extend to similarly qualified African Americans.
Along with Houston, another black lawyer began to shape the NAACP's legal policy in the late 1930s. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice, worked with Houston on Murray and by 1939 had succeeded him as NAACP Chief Counsel and also set up the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Over the following decade, Marshall brought to the Court two graduate education cases that set the stage for Brown. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma, the state's segregated graduate school of education had admitted a black student, sixty-eight-year-old George McLaurin, but had segregated him within the school, roping off a separate seating area and scheduling his lunch hour at a different time from that of his white classmates. Sweatt v. Painter, a Texas case, concerned the state's offer of a separate law school for black students. Unlike Gaines, this school would come close to parity with the white school, including access to its library and faculty. In both cases, Marshall argued that segregation itself was inherently unequal and that it denied African Americans their rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
The Supreme Court decided both cases in 1950, the year Charles Houston died. In these rulings, the Court stopped just short of overturning Plessy. Meanwhile, the NAACP was considering a new challenge to the nation's segregated elementary schools. Within the organization, this was controversial. The 1948 NAACP conference stated a clear policy against joining lawsuits that recognized "the validity of segregation statutes" — as all the earlier "equalization" cases had done. Tackling local cases involving unequal elementary schools seemed to many to be a step backward. But when five groups of plaintiffs approached the NAACP beginning in 1949, Marshall and his colleagues agreed to help.
Collectively referred to as Brown v. Board of Education, the cases came from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, with a related case from the District of Columbia. Each was a class-action lawsuit involving state-imposed school segregation. In the Virginia case, a group of African American high school students had initiated the action themselves. They, along with the South Carolina plaintiffs, faced obvious and extreme inequity — even South Carolina's governor had promised to improve black schools. In the Kansas case, the black and white schools were roughly comparable, and the lawsuit provoked local black opposition as some African American teachers feared losing their jobs. But with inequality conceded in the southern cases and not at issue in Kansas, the NAACP could at last directly challenge the constitutionality of segregation for itself.
NAACP lawyers presented each case before federal tribunals in their respective districts. Among the evidence they presented was that of academic experts like social psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, known as the "doll man," whose work with children demonstrated the damaging psychological effects of segregation. As expected, the tribunals relied on Supreme Court precedent — Plessy — and ruled with the defendants. But the opinions gave Marshall hope. Delaware Chancellor Collins Seitz wrote, "I believe the 'separate but equal' doctrine in education should be rejected, but I also believe its rejection must come from [the Supreme] Court."
Now consolidated under the name Brown v. Board of Education, the five cases came before the Supreme Court in December, 1952. The NAACP followed the same strategy that brought success in Sweatt and McLaurin. Marshall and his colleagues wrote that states had no valid reason to impose segregation, that racial separation — no matter how equal the facilities — caused psychological damage to black children, and that "restrictions or distinctions based upon race or color" violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Lawyers for the states argued that Plessy was correct: as long as accommodations were "equal," segregation itself hurt no one. They predicted dire consequences of integrated education, particularly in a South accustomed to segregation.
Though a majority of the justices already favored the NAACP's clients, some feared issuing a ruling that might have to be implemented by force. They decided to have the cases reargued the following term. In the intervening time, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died and President Eisenhower replaced him with California governor Earl Warren, who used his political skills to negotiate a unanimous Court verdict for desegregation.
The opinion, written by Warren and read on May 17, 1954, was short and straightforward. It echoed Marshall's expert witnesses, stating that for African American schoolchildren, segregation "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." Critics decried such emphasis on psychological and sociological evidence, but Chief Justice Warren later argued for the importance of contradicting Plessy, which had stated that African Americans themselves had imagined any "badge of inferiority" conferred by segregation. The decision went on to say that segregation had no valid purpose, was imposed to give blacks lower status, and was therefore unconstitutional based on the Fourteenth Amendment.
Despite victory in the nation's highest court, desegregation was not immediate, easy, or complete. A separate decision, known as Brown II (1955), set guidelines for dismantling segregation, but without deadlines — the opinion contained the infamous phrase "with all deliberate speed" — desegregation came slowly. Throughout the South, whites reacted violently to school integration. Crowds threw rocks at black grade-schoolers in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, and in 1962, Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the door when the first African American students attempted to enter the state university. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, urban schools increasingly experienced de facto segregation as middle-class whites fled to the suburbs. New strategies to achieve integration, like busing, sparked renewed frustration, anger, and resentment on all sides. At present, many urban American schools are nearly all-black, while many suburban schools are all-white — schools that are in some cases as unequal as those before Brown. Despite such setbacks, however, the case, considered by many legal scholars the most significant of the twentieth century, brought racial integration to thousands of American schools and inspired the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.