Under the laws of the time, many public facilities were segregated by race. The precedent-setting

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AP USGO Chapter 5 - Brown v. Board of Education

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 nonsegregated, or unitary, 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 three-judge federal district 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 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.

Questions to Consider

  1. What right does the Fourteenth Amendment give citizens?

  2. What problems did Linda Brown encounter in Topeka that eventually resulted in this case?

  3. What precedent did the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling establish? How was that precedent related to Brown?

  4. This case is based on what the concept of "equality" means. What are the conflicting points of view on this concept in this case?

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Brown.  The Court found the practice of segregation unconstitutional and refused to apply its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson to “the field of public education.”  Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the Court. 

The Court noted that public education was central to American life.  Calling it “the very foundation of good citizenship,” they acknowledged that public education was not only necessary to prepare children for their future professions and to enable them to actively participate in the democratic process, but that it was also “a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values” present in their communities. The justices found it very unlikely that a child would be able to succeed in life without a good education.  Access to such an education was thus “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

The justices then assessed the equality of the facilities that the Board of Education of Topeka provided for the education of African American children against those provided for white children.  Ruling that they were substantially equal in “tangible factors” that could be measured easily, (such as “buildings, curricula, and qualifications and salaries of teachers), they concluded that the Court must instead examine the more subtle, intangible effect of segregation on the system of public education.

Departing from the Court’s earlier reasoning in Plessy, the justices here argued that separating children solely on the basis of race created a feeling of inferiority in the “hearts and minds” of African American children.  Segregating children in public education created and perpetuated the idea that African American children held a lower status in the community than white children, even if their separate educational facilities were substantially equal in “tangible” factors.  This feeling of inferiority reduced the desire to learn and achieve in African American children, and had “a tendency to retard their educational and mental development and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.”  Concluding that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal”, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public education denied African American children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

One year later, the Court addressed the implementation of its decision in a case known as Brown v. Board of Education II.  Chief Justice Warren once again wrote an opinion for the unanimous court.  The Court acknowledged that desegregating public schools would take place in various ways, depending on the unique problems faced by individual school districts.  After charging local school authorities with the responsibility for solving these problems, the Court instructed federal trial courts to oversee the process and determine whether local authorities were desegregating schools in good faith, mandating that desegregation take place with “with all deliberate speed.”

5. What is the court’s decision? What is the constitutional basis for their decision?

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