Brown v. Board of Education
Educational separation in the US prior to Brown
, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States
Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate
public schools for
black and white students denied black children equal educational
The decision overturned earlier rulings going
back to Plessy v.
in 1896. Handed
down on May 17, 1954, the Warren
unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational
facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial
was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause
of the United
. This victory paved the way for integration
and the civil
For much of the ninety years preceding the Brown
in the U.S. had been
dominated by racial segregation
policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States
Supreme Court case of Plessy
, which held that as long as
the separate facilities for the separate races were "equal,"
segregation did not violate the Fourteenth
("no State shall... deny to any person... the equal
protection of the laws.")
that this system of racial separation
while masquerading as providing separate but relatively equal
treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated
inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black
Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the
17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 that
prohibited it. Brown was influenced by UNESCO's 1950
Statement, signed by a wide variety of internationally renowned
scholars, titled The Race
This declaration denounced previous
attempts at scientifically justifying
as well as morally condemning racism
. Another work that the Supreme Court cited was
American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy
(1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration. The
research performed by the educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark
and Mamie Phipps Clark
the Court's decision. The Clarks' "doll test" studies presented
substantial arguments to the Supreme Court about how segregation
had an impact on black schoolchildren's mental status.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, a
class action suit was filed against the
Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the U.S. District Court for the District
plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their twenty
The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of
racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by
the Topeka Board of Education under an 1879 Kansas law, which
permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate
elementary school facilities for black and white students in twelve
communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been
recruited by the leadership of the Topeka NAACP. Notable among the
Topeka NAACP leaders were the chairman McKinley Burnett
; Charles Scott
, one of three serving as legal
counsel for the chapter; and Lucinda Todd.
The named plaintiff, Oliver
, was a
parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad
assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American
. He was convinced to join
the lawsuit by Scott, a childhood friend. Brown's daughter
Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus
stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile (1.6 km)
away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was seven blocks
from her house.
As directed by the NAACP leadership, the parents each attempted to
enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the
fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the
segregated schools. Linda Brown Thompson later recalled the
experience in a 2004 PBS documentary:
- . . . well. like I say, we lived in an integrated
neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different
nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be
able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know.
remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the
school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And
I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he
went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out
. . . to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was
in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised,
you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came
out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the
school. I just couldn't understand what was happening because I was
so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere,
Wanda, and all of my playmates.
The Kansas case, "Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of
Topeka, Kansas," was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy
to have a man at the head of the roster. Also, it was felt by
lawyers with the National Chapter of the NAACP, that having Mr.
Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the
U.S. Supreme Court Justices because Mr. Brown had an intact,
complete family, as opposed to someone who was a single parent head
of household . The thirteen plaintiffs were: Oliver Brown, Darlene
Brown, Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emerson, Shirley
Fleming, Zelma Henderson
Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson, and Lucinda
Todd. The last surviving plaintiff, Zelma Henderson, died in
Topeka, on May 20, 2008, at the age of 88.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing
the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson
, , which had upheld a state
law requiring "separate but equal" segregated facilities for blacks
and whites in railway cars. The three-judge District Court panel
found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect
upon negro children, but denied relief on the ground that the negro
and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect
to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational
qualifications of teachers.
Supreme Court review
The case of Brown v. Board of Education
before the Supreme Court combined five cases: Brown
itself, Briggs v.
Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis
School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia),
Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling
v. Sharpe (filed in Washington
All were NAACP-sponsored cases. The Davis case, the only case of
the five originating from a student protest, began when
sixteen-year-old Barbara Rose
Johns organized and led a 450-student walkout of Moton High
The Kansas case was unique among the group in that there was no
contention of gross inferiority of the segregated schools' physical
plant, curriculum, or staff. The district court found substantial
equality as to all such factors. The Delaware case was unique in
that the District Court judge in Gebhart
ordered that the
black students be admitted to the white high school due to the
substantial harm of segregation and the differences that made the
schools separate but not
equal. The NAACP's chief counsel,
—who was later
appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967—argued the case before
the Supreme Court for the plaintiffs. Assistant attorney
general Paul Wilson—later distinguished emeritus professor of law
at the University
of Kansas—conducted the state's ambivalent defense in his
first appellate trial.
The Topeka middle schools had been integrated since 1941. Topeka
High School was integrated from its inception in 1871 and its
sports teams from 1949 on. The Kansas law permitting segregated
schools allowed them only "below the high school level."
Soon after the district court decision, election outcomes and the
political climate in Topeka changed. The Board of Education of
Topeka began to end segregation in the Topeka elementary schools in
August 1953, integrating two attendance districts. All the Topeka
elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers
in January 1956, although existing students were allowed to
continue attending their prior assigned schools at their option.
Plaintiff Zelma Henderson, in a 2004 interview, recalled that no
demonstrations or tumult accompanied desegregation in Topeka's
- "They accepted it," she said. "It wasn't too long until they
integrated the teachers and principals."
The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor
of McKinley Burnett, NAACP chapter president who organized the
Monroe Elementary was designated a U.S. National Historic Site
unit of the
National Park Service on October 26, 1992.
Not everyone accepted the Brown v. Board of
decision. In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr.
organized the Massive Resistance
movement that included
the closing of schools rather than desegregating them. See, for
example, The Southern
. For more implications of the Brown
decision, see Desegregation
Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus
called out his state's National Guard to block black students' entry to Little Rock
High School. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by deploying
elements of the 101st Airborne
Division from Fort
to Arkansas and by federalizing Faubus' National
1957, Florida's response was mixed.
Its legislature passed
the decision and declaring it null and void. But Florida Governor Thomas LeRoy Collins
, though joining in the
protest against the court decision, refused to sign it arguing that
the attempt to overturn the ruling must be done in legal
Alabama Gov. George Wallace
personally blocked the door to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two black
This became the infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door
where Wallace personally backed his "segregation now, segregation
tomorrow, segregation forever" policy that he had stated in his
1963 inaugural address. He moved aside only when confronted
General Henry Graham
of the Alabama
National Guard, who was ordered by President John F. Kennedy to
Backlash and scientific racism
The intellectual roots of Plessy
the landmark United States Supreme Court decision upholding the
constitutionality of racial segregation
in 1896 under the doctrine of "separate but equal
" were, in part, tied
to the scientific racism
era. However, the popular support for the decision was more likely
a result of the racist beliefs held by many whites at the time. In
deciding Brown v. Board of Education
, the Supreme
Court rejected the ideas of scientific racists about the need for
segregation, especially in schools. The Court buttressed its
holding by citing (in footnote 11
) social science research about the
harms to black children caused by segregated schools.
Both scholarly and popular ideas of scientific racism played an
important role in the attack and backlash that followed the
decision. The Mankind Quarterly
is a journal that
has published scientific racism. It was founded in 1960, in part in
response to the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision Brown
v. Board of Education
that ordered the desegregation
of U.S. schools. Many of the publication's contributors,
publishers, and Board of Directors espouse academic hereditarianism
. The publication is widely
criticized for its extremist politics, antisemitic bent and its
support for scientific racism.
Legal criticism and praise
wrote a memo
titled "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases" when he was a
law clerk for Justice Robert H.
in 1952, during early
deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of
decision. In his memo, Rehnquist argued: "I realize
that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I
have been excoriated by 'liberal' colleagues but I think
Plessy v. Ferguson
was right and should be
reaffirmed." Rehnquist continued, "To the argument . . .
that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional
right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory,
in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the
constitutional rights of the minorities are." Rehnquist also argued
with other law clerks.Peter S. Canellos,
Memos may not hold Roberts's opinions
, The Boston Globe
, August 23, 2005. Here is
what Rehnquist said in 1986 about his conversations with other
clerks about Plessy
I thought Plessy had been wrongly decided at
the time, that it was not a good interpretation of the equal
protection clause to say that when you segregate people by race,
there is no denial of equal protection.
But Plessy had been on the books for 60 years;
Congress had never acted, and the same Congress that had
promulgated the 14th Amendment had required segregation in the
District schools. . . .
I saw factors on both
sides. . . .
I did not agree then, and I certainly do not agree now,
with the statement that Plessy against Ferguson is right
and should be reaffirmed.
I had ideas on both sides, and I do not think I ever
really finally settled in my own mind on
that. . . .
[A]round the lunch table I am sure I defended
it. . . .
I thought there were good arguments to be made in
support of it.
S. Hrg. 99-1067, Hearings Before the Senate Committee on the
Judiciary on the Nomination of Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist to
be Chief Justice of the United States (July 29, 30, 31, and August
1, 1986). However, during his 1971 confirmation hearings, Rehnquist
said, "I believe that the memorandum was prepared by me as a
statement of Justice Jackson's tentative views for his own use."
Justice Jackson had initially planned to join a dissent in
. Later, at his 1986 hearings for the slot of Chief
Justice, Rehnquist put further distance between himself and the
1952 memo: "The bald statement that Plessy was right and should be
reaffirmed, was not an accurate reflection of my own views at the
time."In any event, while serving on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist
made no effort to reverse or undermine the Brown
and frequently relied upon it as precedent.
Some aspects of the Brown
decision are still debated.
Notably, Supreme Court Justice Clarence
, himself an African American, wrote in Missouri v. Jenkins
(1995) that at the very
least, Brown I
has been misunderstood by the courts.
- Brown I did not say that "racially isolated" schools were
inherently inferior; the harm that it identified was tied purely to
de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. Indeed, Brown I
itself did not need to rely upon any psychological or
social-science research in order to announce the simple, yet
fundamental truth that the Government cannot discriminate among its
citizens on the basis of race. . . .
- Segregation was not unconstitutional because it might have
caused psychological feelings of inferiority. Public school systems
that separated blacks and provided them with superior educational
resources making blacks "feel" superior to whites sent to lesser
schools—would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether or not the
white students felt stigmatized, just as do school systems in which
the positions of the races are reversed. Psychological injury or
benefit is irrelevant. . . .
- Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps
forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to
think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by
members of their own race as when they are in an integrated
environment. (. . .) Because of their "distinctive
histories and traditions," black schools can function as the center
and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of
independent black leadership, success, and achievement.
Some Constitutional originalists
notably Raoul Berger
in his influential
1977 book "Government by Judiciary," make the case that
cannot be defended by reference to the original
understanding of the 14th Amendment. They support this reading of
the 14th amendment by noting that the Civil Rights Act of 1875
ban segregated schools. Other originalists, including Michael W. McConnell
, a federal judge on the
States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
, in his article
"Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions," argue that the
who spearheaded the 14th Amendment were in
favor of desegregated southern schools.
The case also has attracted some criticism from more liberal
authors, including some who say that Chief Justice Warren's
reliance on psychological criteria to find a harm against
segregated blacks was unnecessary. For example, Drew S. Days
written: "we have developed criteria for evaluating the
constitutionality of racial classifications that do not depend upon
findings of psychic harm or social science evidence. They are based
rather on the principle that 'distinctions between citizens solely
because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free
people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of
, 320 U.S. 81 (1943). . . ."
In his book "The Tempting of America" (page 82), Robert Bork
endorsed the Brown
- By 1954, when Brown came up for decision, it had been apparent
for some time that segregation rarely if ever produced equality.
Quite aside from any question of psychology, the physical
facilities provided for blacks were not as good as those provided
for whites. That had been demonstrated in a long series of cases .
. . The Court's realistic choice, therefore, was either to abandon
the quest for equality by allowing segregation or to forbid
segregation in order to achieve equality. There was no third
choice. Either choice would violate one aspect of the original
understanding, but there was no possibility of avoiding that. Since
equality and segregation were mutually inconsistent, though the
ratifiers did not understand that, both could not be honored. When
that is seen, it is obvious the Court must choose equality and
prohibit state-imposed segregation. The purpose that brought the
fourteenth amendment into being was equality before the law, and
equality, not separation, was written into the law.
In June 1987, a civil rights attorney—who served associate in the
Solicitor General's office during Harry Truman's term—Philip Elman
, claimed he and Felix Frankfurter
were mostly responsible for the Supreme Court's decision, and
stated that the NAACP's arguments did not present strong evidence.
Elman has been criticized for offering a self-aggrandizing history
of the case, omitting important facts, and denigrating the work of
civil rights attorneys who had laid the groundwork for the decision
over many decades. Public officials in the United States today are
nearly unanimous in lauding the ruling. In May 2004, the fiftieth
anniversary of the ruling, President George W. Bush spoke at
the opening of the "Brown v. Board of Education National Historic
Site", calling Brown "a decision that changed
America for the better, and forever."
Most Senators and
Representatives issued press releases hailing the ruling.
In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools
requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In their
decision which became known as "Brown II
" the court
delegated the task of carrying out school desegregation to district
courts with orders that desegregation occur "with all deliberate
speed," a phrase traceable to Francis
's poem, The Hound of
Supporters of the earlier decision were displeased with this
decision. The language “all deliberate speed” was seen by critics
as too ambiguous to ensure reasonable haste for compliance with the
court's instruction. Many Southern states and school districts
interpreted "Brown II" as legal justification for resisting,
delaying, and avoiding significant integration for years—and in
some cases for a decade or more—using such tactics as closing down
school systems, using state money to finance segregated "private"
schools, and "token" integration where a few carefully selected
black children were admitted to former white-only schools but the
vast majority remained in underfunded, unequal black schools.
For example, based on "Brown II," the U.S. District Court ruled
that Prince Edward County,
Virginia did not have to desegregate immediately.
When another court case in 1959 ruled that the county's schools
finally had to desegregate, the county board of supervisors stopped
appropriating money for public schools which remained closed for
five years, from 1959 to 1964. White students in the county were
given assistance to attend white-only "private academies" that were
taught by teachers formerly employed by the public school system,
while black students had no education at all unless they moved out
of the county.
In 1978, Topeka attorneys Richard Jones, Joseph Johnson and Charles
Scott Jr. (son of the original Brown
team member), with
assistance from the American Civil Liberties
, persuaded Linda Brown Smith—who now had her own children
in Topeka schools—to be a plaintiff in reopening Brown
They were concerned that the Topeka Public Schools' policy of "open
enrollment" had led to and would lead to further segregation. They
also believed that with a choice of open enrollment, white parents
would shift their children to "preferred" schools that would create
both predominantly African American and predominantly European
American schools within the district. The district court reopened
case after a 25-year hiatus, but denied the
plaintiffs' request finding the schools "unitary". In 1989, a
three-judge panel of the 10th
on 2–1 vote found that the vestiges of segregation
remained with respect to student and staff assignment. In 1993, the
Supreme Court denied the appellant School District's request for
and returned the case
to District Court Judge Richard Rodgers for implementation of the
Tenth Circuit's mandate.
After a 1994 plan was approved and a bond issue passed, additional
elementary magnet schools were opened and district attendance plans
redrawn, which resulted in the Topeka schools meeting court
standards of racial balance by 1998. Unified status was eventually
granted to Topeka Unified School District #501 on July 27, 1999.
One of the new magnet schools
named after the Scott family attorneys for their role in the
case and civil rights.
- Plessy v.
Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537
(1896)—separate but equal for schools
- Powell v.
Alabama, 287 U.S. 45
(1932)—access to counsel
- Hernandez v.
Texas, 347 U.S. 475
(1954)—the Fourteenth Amendment protects those beyond the racial
classes of white or Negro.
- Smith v.
Allwright, 321 U.S. 649
(1944)—non-white voters in primary elections
- Sipuel v.
of Regents of Univ. of Okla., 332 U.S. 631 (1948)—access
to taxpayer state funded law schools
- Shelley v.
Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1
- Mendez v.
Westminster, 64 F.
Supp. 544 (1946)—prohibits segregating Mexican American children in
- Sweatt v.
Painter, 339 U.S. 629
(1950)—segregated law schools in Texas
v. Oklahoma State
Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)—prohibits segregation in a
public institution of higher learning
- Briggs v.
Elliott, 347 U.S. 483
(1952) Brown Case #1'—Summerton, South
School Board of Prince Edward County, 103 F. Supp. 337
(1952) Brown Case #2'—Prince Edward County,
- Gebhart v.
Belton, 33 Del. Ch. 144
(1952) Brown Case #3'—Claymont,
- Bolling v.
Sharpe, 347 U.S.
(1954) Brown companion case'—dealt with the
constitutionality of segregation in the District of
Columbia, which—as a federal district, not a state—is not
subject to the Fourteenth
- NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1958)—privacy
of NAACP membership lists, and free association of members
- Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958) – Federal
court enforcement of desegregation
- Boynton v.
Virginia, 364 U.S. 454
(1960)—outlawed racial segregation in public transportation
- Heart of
Atlanta Motel v. United States,
379 U.S. 241 (1964)—held constitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which
banned racial discrimination in public places, particularly in
public accommodations even in private property.
- Loving v.
Virginia, 388 U.S. 1
laws (race-based restrictions on marriage).
Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971)—established bussing
as a solution
- Guey Heung Lee
v. Johnson, 404 U.S 1215 (1971)
– "Brown v. Board of Education was not written for blacks alone",
desegregation of Asian schools in opposition to parents of Asian
- Milliken v.
Bradley, 418 U.S. 717
(1974)—rejected bussing across school district lines.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v.
Seattle School District No.
1, 551 U.S. 701, 127 S. Ct. 2738
(2007)—rejected using race as the sole determining factor for
assigning students to schools.
v. Holmes County
Board of Education – changed Brown's requirement
of desegregation at all "deliberate speed" to one of "desegregation
- List of
United States Supreme Court Cases
* See Case citation
for an explanation
of these numbers.
- The most common misconception about Brown v. Board
of Education is that the case is solely about Linda Brown and
whether she should or should not be able to attend the school
nearest her home. In fact, Brown was a consolidation of
five different cases, from four states, all of which dealt with the
same issue. (A similar case from the District of Columbia was
handled separately.) Linda Brown was merely the "poster child," as
it were, for some 200 plaintiffs altogether. A dozen attorneys and
countless community activists were involved in effort to eliminate
"de jure" racial segregation in the public schools.
- The second most common misconception is that the case talks
about the hardship that affected Linda Brown because she was not
able to attend her local school, because it was for white children
only. In fact, the case discusses the hardships collectively faced
by all of the children concerned. It also focuses a lot of
attention on the psychological well-being of the children in
reference to the segregation of schools.
- It is sometimes thought that Oliver Brown was the named
plaintiff in the consolidated cases because he was alphabetically
first in the list. In fact Darlene Brown, another plaintiff, (no
relation to Oliver Brown) would have been the named plaintiff if
that had actually been the case.
- It is also frequently thought that Brown was the first
legal challenge to racially segregated schools in the United
States. In fact, it was the eleventh case to challenge the 1879
Kansas law, and the third case from Topeka.
- Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown
v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for
Equality (1975; New York: Vintage Books, 1977). ISBN
- Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., All Deliberate Speed: Reflections
on the First Half Century of Brown v. Board of
Education (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004). ISBN
- James T. Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education: A
Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (Oxford
University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-19-515632-3
- Gunnar Myrdal, An
American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy
The Race Question