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Brown v. Board of Education

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Brown v. Board of Education[1], 347 U.S. 483, 47 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873, was the most significant of a series of judicial decisions overturning segregation laws—laws that separate whites and blacks. Reversing its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, which established the "separate-but-equal" doctrine that found racial segregation to be constitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in Brown that laws separating children by race in different schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that "[n]o state shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws." In making its decision, the Court declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Moreover, the Court found that segregated schools promote in African American children a harmful and irreparable sense of inferiority that damages not only their lives but the welfare of U.S. society as a whole.

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Contents

Overview

The principle expressed in Brown was used in later decisions of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts to reverse segregation in other fields as well. By the end of the 1960s, laws that had required racial segregation in buses, trains, bathrooms, and other public places had been overturned, as had many other laws that obstructed the rights of African Americans. Brown v. Board of Education thus served as a milestone in the struggle of African Americans to gain equal civil rights in U.S. society. It also symbolized the judicial activism of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, who would go on to lead the Court until 1969 in a remarkable era of change with regard to civil rights.

History

Brown v. Board of Education was actually the culmination of a decades-long struggle by both African Americans and sympathetic whites against segregation and other discriminatory laws. Though it is a given in the 21st century that persons of all races should enjoy equality under the law in the United States, that has not been the case for most of the country's history.

Even after the U.S. Civil War had ended and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments had outlawed slavery and guaranteed the Civil Rights of "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" (U.S. Const. amend. XIV), southern states and localities established the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws—also known as the Black Codes—to keep African Americans from enjoying legal equality with whites.

Jim Crow Laws

The term Jim Crow derives from a popular minstrel song of the nineteenth century. These laws made it difficult or impossible for African Americans to vote, made it illegal for them to use the same public facilities as whites, restricted their travel, forbade interracial marriage, and otherwise attempted to keep African Americans in a state of dependence and inferiority with regard to whites. Most of these laws were passed after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, when the military occupation of the South had ended and the radical wing of the Republican Party, which under President Abraham Lincoln had been instrumental in dismantling slavery, had declined in power. By the mid-1870s, southern whites were again in political control of their region, and many quickly sought to return blacks to a position of legal inferiority through passage of discriminatory laws.

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1896 the legal standing of the Jim Crow Laws was strengthened when, in Plessy v. Ferguson[2], the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute requiring blacks and whites to occupy separate railway cars. The law in question, according to the Court, was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities provided for each race were separate but equal.

Moreover, the Supreme Court voiced its disagreement with attempts to challenge segregation laws and with the ideas critics of segregation used to support those challenges. For example, in its opinion, the Court considered it a "fallacy" that "the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority," and it scoffed at the notion that "social prejudices may be overcome by legislation. "Ironically, the Court reinforced its decision to uphold the legality of segregation on rail cars by noting the existence of laws "requiring separate schools for colored children." The Plessy decision and its separate-but-equal doctrine were later used to uphold segregation in public schools and other public facilities.

Role of the NAACP

African Americans and others who sympathized with their cause were bitterly disappointed by the Plessy decision. Over a decade later, in 1909, some blacks and whites joined together to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which would eventually coordinate a successful legal challenge to the Plessy ruling. The NAACP brought together people of all races in an effort to improve the situation of people of color. Although the NAACP achieved some victories in the fight against Jim Crow laws in the first two decades of its existence, it was not until 1935 that the organization began actively to mount a campaign against segregation in schools. It did so assisted by legal counsels Charles Hamilton Houston and William H. Hastie, and a young assistant, Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to be a member of the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.

By 1939, Marshall had become head of the NAACP legal branch, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and by the early 1950s, he and his organization had argued and secured significant legal victories before the Supreme Court that helped set the stage for Brown. In Sweatt v. Painter[3], 339 U.S. 629, 70 S. Ct. 848, 94 L. Ed. 1114 (1950), the Court sided with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when it ruled that a separate law school for blacks in Texas could not provide an education equal to that available to whites at the more established University of Texas Law School. And in another case brought by Marshall's organization, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents[4], 339 U.S. 637, 70 S. Ct. 851, 94 L. Ed. 1149 (1950), the Court ruled that separate library and lecture hall seats for a single black graduate student were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, neither case addressed the separate-but-equal doctrine of Plessy.

In 1952 Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought two more significant cases to the Supreme Court: Bolling v. Sharpe[5], 347 U.S. 497, 74 S. Ct. 693, 98 L. Ed. 884 (1954), which dealt with racial segregation of schools in the District of Columbia, and Brown, which was actually a consolidation of four class action suits (suits brought to court on behalf of a group of people) from federal district courts in Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought the cases to court on behalf of African American children who were refused admission to schools attended by white children as a result of laws allowing or requiring racial segregation in schools.

Facts of Brown v. Board of Education & Court Proceedings

The plaintiff named in the case, Oliver Brown, had a daughter, Linda Brown, who had been denied admission to an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because she was black. In all but the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court had decided against the African American children and in favor of the school districts, citing as precedent the Plessy separate-but-equal doctrine. In the Delaware case, the state supreme court also upheld this doctrine but ordered that black children be sent to superior white schools until schools provided for blacks could be improved to an equal condition.

Brown was argued before the Supreme Court in 1952 and reargued in 1953. Marshall, in making his statement before the Court, argued that the statutes in question in this case were equivalent to the Black Codes. He pointed out the contradictions in allowing blacks and whites to vote in the same places and attend the same colleges and universities, but not allowing black and white children to attend the same elementary schools. He also maintained that a decision in favor of segregation would effectively be a decision to keep African Americans as near as possible to their former state of slavery. According to Marshall, such a decision would be equivalent to saying that "Negroes are inferior to all other human beings."

John W. Davis, who was legal counsel for the state of South Carolina, argued in his closing remarks that the state had honored Plessy's separate-but-equal doctrine through large investments in schools for black students. He claimed that the state had the intention of creating a condition of equality for children of all races and that "the happiness, the progress and the welfare of these children is best promoted in segregated schools." He also maintained that it was not within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court to decide how the state of South Carolina conducted its school system. He told the Court:

Your Honors do not sit, and cannot sit as a glorified Board of Education for the State of South Carolina or any other state…. … Neither this Court nor any other court … can sit in the chairs of the legislature of South Carolina and mold its educational system, and if it is found to be in its present form unacceptable, the State of South Carolina must devise the alternative.

On the same day that the Court handed down its decision in Brown, it decided the related case of Bolling. Applying the same principles that it had used in Brown, the Court ruled in Bolling that racial segregation of schoolchildren in the District of Columbia was unconstitutional.

In the following year, the Supreme Court on reargument made another decision in Brown that was designed to establish the methodology by which to enforce desegregation of public schools. Brown II, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955), as it has come to be called, determined that school authorities had the principal responsibility for evaluating and solving local educational problems, including those resulting from segregation. The Court decided to remand (send back) the individual cases in Brown to lower courts in order that those courts might better assess the efforts of school authorities to desegregate the public schools and thereby provide to African American children their equal protection under the laws as promised by the Fourteenth Amendment. The lower courts were directed to take into account any problems concerning school administration, facilities, transportation, and personnel, and to consider any revision of local laws necessary to resolve the problems and achieve desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education dealt only with government-mandated or government-authorized segregation. It did not apply to racial segregation or discrimination related to restaurants, theaters, employment, country clubs, or other parts of the private sector. However, Brown fostered changes in the legal and moral outlook of the country that greatly aided future efforts to end racial discrimination as related to employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, and thus greatly affected U.S. race relations.

After Brown Decision

Despite the promise of Brown, desegregation of U.S. schools proceeded slowly. In the years immediately following the decision, many southern school districts resisted or delayed implementation of its desegregation requirements, thereby forcing the Supreme Court and other lower courts to oversee and supervise school administrative functions in many localities. As time went on and southern schools became more integrated, the Court shifted its focus to school districts all over the country, particularly those in cities. In the second half of the twentieth century, many African Americans moved from rural to urban areas, often in the northern states. School districts in many of those urban areas became separated into suburban white districts and urban black districts. In response to this challenge, courts imposed busing requirements during the 1970s: in the interest of creating more racially balanced schools, children were bused to different schools that were sometimes far from their home neighborhoods. In many cities, busing became highly controversial.

By the late 1980s, legal battles surrounding the legacy of the Brown decision changed when some school districts began to request that they be released from the court supervision of their operations that had been required by Brown. Accordingly, the Supreme Court began to focus on the issue of when a court order to desegregate a school district should be dissolved and autonomy returned to the local school officials and community. In Board of Education v. Dowell[6], 498 U.S. 237, 111 S. Ct. 630, 112 L. Ed. 2d 715 (1991), which dealt with a court-imposed desegregation plan in Oklahoma City, the Court ruled that a court-ordered desegregation decree may be dissolved when a school district shows that it has taken all "practicable" steps to end a state-imposed dual school system and demonstrates that it is unlikely to revert to its former ways. The ability to dissolve a court-ordered desegregation plan, the Court's opinion stated, would enable a school district that had attempted to achieve the goal of desegregation to avoid "judicial tutelage for the indefinite future."

Justice Marshall, now near the end of his career on the Court, dissented from the majority opinion in Dowell. He argued that, given the long history of segregation, it was too early to leave the Oklahoma City school district to its own devices. Though he agreed that perpetual federal judicial supervision of local schools had never been envisioned by the Court, he feared that the Court's decision in this case would simply perpetuate an already unsatisfactory standard of integration in the Oklahoma City school district and in other school districts.

In another case, Freeman v. Pitts[7], 503 U.S. 467, 112 S. Ct. 1430, 118 L. Ed. 2d 108 (1992), the Supreme Court held that district courts may relinquish supervision and control of school districts in incremental stages, before full compliance has been achieved in every facet of school operations. The Court also ruled that once a school district corrects any racial imbalance that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the district has no obligation to remedy a later imbalance caused by population shifts.

As these cases indicate, the issue of desegregation of public schools remained a vital public issue even several decades after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown. As a means of both training and socialization, education is still a necessity for U.S. society as a whole and for any individual in particular, and it is expected to remain so in the future. Guided by Brown, the U.S. judicial system has decisively concluded that the constitutional provision of equal protection under the laws guarantees that children be entitled to an equal, not a separate, public education.

References

  1. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=347&invol=483
  2. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=163&invol=537
  3. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=339&invol=629
  4. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=339&invol=637
  5. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=347&invol=497
  6. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=498&invol=237
  7. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case=/us/503/467.html

Balkin, Jack M., and Bruce Ackerman, et al., eds., 2001. What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Landmark Civil Rights Decision. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Hunt, James L. 2001. "Brown v. Board of Education After Fifty Years: Context and Synopsis." Mercer Law Review 52 (winter).

Irons, Peter H. 2002. Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision. New York: Viking.

Klein, Dora W. 2002. "Beyond Brown v. Board of Education: The Need to Remedy the Achievement Gap." The Journal of Law and Education 31 (October).

Kluger, Richard. 1975. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf.

Levine, Ellen, ed. 1994. Freedom's Children. New York: Avon Flare.

Miller, LaMar P., ed. 1986. Brown Plus Thirty: Perspective on Desegregation. New York: Metropolitan Center for Educational Research, New York Univ. Press.

Patterson, James T. 2001. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Pollack, Jack. 1979. Earl Warren: The Judge Who Changed America. Upper Saddle, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Weinburg, Meyer. 1967. Race and Place: A Legal History of the Neighborhood School. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Whitman, Mark, ed. 1993. Removing a Badge of Slavery: The Record of Brown v. Board of Education. Princeton, N.J.: Wiener.

Wilkinson, J. Harvie III. 1979. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954–1978. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


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