Constitutional issue



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Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954)

CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUE

The Brown case was an explicit reappraisal of the question in Plessy v. Ferguson. Did separate but equal public facilities violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?



THE COURT'S DECISION

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Court's unanimous decision.

Justice Warren began by noting that attempts to determine the precise intent of the Fourteenth Amendment's original sponsors have proved in­conclusive. Even more difficult was any effort to discover its relation to the issue of public schools, as so few were in existence when the Amendment took effect.

Warren explained that the Court's method of examination, then, was to "look to the effect of segregation itself on public education" in order to de­termine "if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the law." Warren added, "In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the [Fourteenth] Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896 when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.... Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the law."

Warren quoted a Kansas state court ruling that held that "segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system." Like­wise, the United States Supreme Court concluded that segregation of African American schoolchildren "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."

Recognizing further the huge psychological impact of segregation, War­ren quoted the finding of a lower court with which he agreed (even though that court did rule against the plaintiffs). That lower court stated the finding based on psychological authority that, "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. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to



BACKGROUND
Brown represents a collec-­
tion of cases, all decided to-­
gether. The cases had one
common feature: African
American children, including
Linda Brown, had been de-­
nied admission to segregated
white public schools.

These cases reached the *


Supreme Court by way of ap-­
peals through lower courts,
all of which had ruled in ac-­
cordance with the decision in
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
The Plessy case determined
that separate but equal facili-­
ties did not violate the Four­-
teenth Amendment's
guarantee of "equal protect-­
tion of the law." ;

An earlier case, Sweatt v. Painter (1950) had held that African Americans must be admitted to the previously segregated University of Texas Law School because no separate but equal facility existed in the state. In Brown, however, there were findings "that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized or were being equalized...."



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AMERICAN ODYSSEY: Chapter 20


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learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has the tendency to [retard] the education and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially inte­grated school system."

Agreeing with this statement, Warren concluded, "Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time ofPIessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Pkssy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected."

On this basis the Court concluded that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facili­ties are inherently unequal. Therefore we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnec­essary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the due pro­cess clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."



Analyzing the Case

1. How does the Brown case differ from Sweatt v. Painter?

2. What was the question raised by both Plessy and Browr?

3. On what basis did the Court reach its decision in Brown?



Critical Thinking

4. Evaluating Information How would you have interpreted the phrase "separate but equal"? Do you agree or disagree with the ruling in the Brown case? Explain your answer.


Source: American Odyssey. Supreme Court Cases, Teacher Materials


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