May 17, 1954: The Supreme Court unanimously rules public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
Fifty-nine years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case that the segregation of public schools was prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; newly-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the opinion:
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group…. We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
The doctrine of “separate but equal” as justification for racial segregation emerged in the United States in the 1890s and was upheld in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court ruled that states could enact racial segregation laws; in the South, this legitimized the dismantlement of Reconstruction Era reform and the South’s enactment of Jim Crow laws. Many states in the North/members of the Union during the Civil War also maintained racially segregated schools — it was the policy of the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that Oliver L. Brown and twelve other plaintiffs sought to challenge, after all. At the time, the Board’s policy permitted Topeka’s school districts to segregate their elementary and middle schools. Under the direction of the NAACP, each of the plaintiffs enrolled their children in local all-white schools and, when their children were refused enrollment, filed a class action suit in the District Court of Kansas, which subsequently ruled in favor of the Board. This decision took place in 1951.
The case that was heard by the Supreme Court in 1953 was a combination of five similar cases (all backed by the NAACP), including Brown v. Board, which lent the Supreme Court case its name. After much deliberation, including a request to rehear the case after the court failed to reach a decision the first time, the Warren Court banned (in a unanimous decision) the segregation of public schools. The justices were divided on how Brown could be enforced and on the issue of judicial activism versus restraint, though Warren pushed for unanimity to further legitimize the decision and prevent Southern resistance (it did not). Although Brown was a key decision and the first step toward the end of de jure segregation, the path to desegregation was long and rocky; Topeka desegregated its elementary schools within two years, but resistance in the South against the court’s decision and against desegregation was inexorable, resulting in incidents such as the Little Rock Crisis and other manifestations of what Virginian politicians dubbed “massive resistance”.