Fifty-five years ago today the United States Supreme Court held for the first time in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, and its companion cases, that segregated public schools for African-American and white students was inherently unequal and thus violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.
The lead case was brought on behalf of an 11 year old African-American school student, Linda Brown, who was required by the Topeka, Kansas school board to attend a segregated school. The Brown decision was the Court's first ruling to overturn the "separate but equal" doctrine first upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson. While technically the Brown case applied only to public schools, it laid the Constitutional philosophical foundation used to overturn racial segregation in an array of cases since. The Brown case and its philosophical opposite, Dred Scott v. Sanford (which upheld slavery), are considered by legal scholars and historians as the two most important Supreme Court decisions in American history.
The case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1967 when he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson. During oral argument in 1953 Marshall stated, " [T]he only way that this Court can decide this case in opposition to our position...is to find that for some reason Negroes are inferior to all other human beings."
The following year the Chief Justice Earl Warren writing for a unanimous court stated, "To separate them [African-American children] 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 ever to be undone."
The decision met with fierce resistance in some areas, particularly in the American South. Southern Senators issued a "Southern Manifesto" and many local leaders and governors openly refused to carry out the Supreme Court's order. In 1955 the Court issued a subsequent decision in Brown II (Brown v. Bd. of Education, 349 U.S. 294) in 1955 where it ordered local school officials to pursue desegregation efforts "with all deliberate speed."
Still, many public officials refused to comply with the Brown rulings. In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to desegregate Little Rock Central High School over Governor Orval Faubus' opposition. The following year the Supreme Court castigated Faubus' actions in the case ofCooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958). In 1964 the Supreme Court stated that there was "too much deliberation and not enough speed" in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 U.S. 218 (1964). There, the Supreme Court by a 7-2 vote maintained that it was unconstitutional for a county to close down its public school system to avoid compliance with the Brown decision. Today, many public schools throughout the nation remain heavily segregated because of segregated housing patterns in American society.
For more reading:Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution
Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for EqualityRichard Kluger Format: Paperback, 823pp.ISBN: 0394722558 Publisher: Vintage Books Pub. Date: January 1977
Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965Juan Williams With Eyes on the Prize Production Team Julian Bond (Introduction)
Format: Paperback, 304pp. ISBN: 0140096531 Publisher: Viking Penguin
Pub. Date: December 1987