Document #1 Brown v. Board of Education

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Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
In the early 1950s, Linda Brown was a young African American student in the Topeka, Kansas school district. Every day she and her sister, Terry Lynn, had to walk through the Rock Island Railroad Switchyard to get to the bus stop for the ride to the all-black Monroe School. Linda Brown tried to gain admission to the Sumner School, which was closer to her house, but her application was denied by the Board of Education of Topeka because of her race. The Sumner School was for white children only.
Under the laws of the time, many public facilities were segregated by race. The precedent-setting Plessy v. Ferguson case, which was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1896, allowed for such segregation. In that case, a black man, Homer Plessy, challenged a Louisiana law that required railroad companies to provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and African American races. He claimed that the Louisiana law violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which demands that states provide "equal protection of the laws." However, the Supreme Court of the United States held that as long as segregated facilities were qualitatively equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. In doing so, the Court classified segregation as a matter of social equality, out of the control of the justice system concerned with maintaining legal equality. The Court stated, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."
At the time of the Brown case, a Kansas statute permitted, but did not require, cities of more than 15,000 people to maintain separate school facilities for black and white students. On that basis, the Board of Education of Topeka elected to establish segregated elementary schools. Other public schools in the community were operated on a non-segregated basis.
The Browns felt that the decision of the Board violated the Constitution. They sued the Board of Education of Topeka, alleging that the segregated school system deprived Linda Brown of the equal protection of the laws required under the Fourteenth Amendment.
No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
—Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Thurgood Marshall, an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued the Brown's case. Marshall would later become a Supreme Court justice.

The lower court found that segregation in public education had a detrimental effect upon black children, but the court denied that there was any violation of Brown's rights because of the "separate but equal" doctrine established in the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy decision. The lower court found that the schools were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricula, and educational qualifications of teachers. The Browns appealed their case to the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that the segregated schools were not equal and could never be made equal. The Court combined the case with several similar cases from South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case came in 1954.

Source: “Background. Brown vs. Board of Education.” Landmark Cases of the Supreme Court. Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society. 14 March 2011 <>.

Document #2
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Decision of the United States Supreme Court

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. They are premised on different facts and different local conditions, but a common legal question justifies their consideration together in this consolidated opinion.

In each of the cases, minors of the Negro race, through their legal representatives, seek the aid of the courts in obtaining admission to the public schools of their community on a nonsegregated basis. In each instance, they had been denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to race. This segregation was alleged to deprive the plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment. In each of the cases other than the Delaware case, a three-judge federal district court denied relief to the plaintiffs on the so-called "separate but equal" doctrine announced by this Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Under that doctrine, equality of treatment is accorded when the races are provided substantially equal facilities, even though these facilities be separate. In the Delaware case, the Supreme Court of Delaware adhered to that doctrine, but ordered that the plaintiffs be admitted to the white schools because of their superiority to the Negro schools.

The plaintiffs contend that segregated public schools are not "equal" and cannot be made "equal," and that hence they are deprived of the equal protection of the laws.

The argument was largely devoted to the circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It covered exhaustively consideration of the Amendment in Congress, ratification by the states, then existing practices in racial segregation, and the views of proponents and opponents of the Amendment. This discussion and our own investigation convince us that, although these sources cast some light, it is not enough to resolve the problem with which we are faced. At best, they are inconclusive. The most avid proponents of the post-War Amendments undoubtedly intended them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Their opponents, just as certainly, were antagonistic to both the letter and the spirit of the Amendments and wished them to have the most limited effect. What others in Congress and the state legislatures had in mind cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

The doctrine of "separate but equal" did not make its appearance in this Court until 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson involving not education but transportation. American courts have since labored with the doctrine for over half a century. In this Court, there have been six cases involving the "separate but equal" doctrine in the field of public education.

In the instant cases, that question is directly presented. Here, unlike Sweatt v. Painter, there are findings below that the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other "tangible" factors. Our decision, therefore, cannot turn on merely a comparison of these tangible factors in the Negro and white schools involved in each of the cases. We must look instead to the effect of segregation itself on public education.

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the 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 laws.

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

In Sweatt v. Painter, in finding that a segregated law school for Negroes could not provide them equal educational opportunities, this Court relied in large part on "those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school." In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the Court, in requiring that a Negro admitted to a white graduate school be treated like all other students, again resorted to intangible considerations: ". . . his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them 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 effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs:

"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 learn. 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 racial[ly] integrated school system."


Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

We conclude 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 laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

We have now announced that such segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.

It is so ordered.

Source: Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Find Law. 14 March 2011

Understanding Brown

A. Document

B. What type of source is it? Describe its key features.

C. Main Idea or Information from the Source

D. Point of View and Evidence that Demonstrates Viewpoint

1. Background of the Court Case

2. Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education

3. “Living with Segregation”

4. “Study”

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