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Brown v. Board of Education

In 1952, several cases on public school segregation and the 14th Amendment were before the U.S. Supreme Court. Rather than deal with each case individually, officials bundled the cases together under the title Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The Cases of Brown v. Board of Education

  • Briggs et al. v. Elliott et al.
    NAACP officials launched a test case against public school segregation in Clarendon County, S.C. The case included social science evidence to illustrate how segregation harmed black children.
  • Bolling v. Sharpe
    In Washington, D.C., the Consolidated Parents Group filed a lawsuit after unsuccessfully trying to enroll several black students in an all-white high school. Originally bundled under Brown v. Board of Education, this case was eventually filed separately because the 14th Amendment was not applicable in Washington, D.C.
  • Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia et al.
    This case challenged Virginia's segregated schools.
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
    In 1951, third-grader Linda Brown walked a mile to her segregated black school every morning, passing several white schools along the way. Linda's father tried unsuccessfully to enroll her in an all-white public school that was closer to where the Browns lived. The NAACP teamed up with Brown to sue the U.S. District Court of Kansas, but the court cited the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson to back its ruling in favor of the District Court. Because the standard of "separate but equal" had been found constitutional in 1896 (and in the 1849 Roberts v. Boston case dealing with segregation in public education), the District Court did not think Linda should be allowed to attend an all-white school.
  • Gebhart et al. v. Beton et al.; Gebhart et al. v. Bulah et al.; Belton et al. v. Gebhart et al.; Bulah et al. v. Gebhart et al.
    These cases challenged public school segregation in Delaware.

Brown v. Board of Education was one of the first Supreme Court cases to use the social sciences to support a major line of reasoning for the plaintiff. The research of psychologist Kenneth Clark who studied the self-image of black children was pivotal to the case. In his research, Clark gave more than 200 black children the option of choosing between a white doll and a brown doll. According to Clark, the fact that the children almost always chose to play with the white doll demonstrated the psychological damage and internalized sense of inferiority that resulted from segregation.

On May 17, 1954, a unanimous decision was handed down, stating in the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren that "in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Following the decision, some school districts began to voluntarily desegregate schools. However, five Southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia—adopted resolutions stating the Supreme Court’s decision was "null, void, and [had] no effect" in their state. Southern states also began passing legislation that imposed sanctions on anyone who implemented desegregation, authorized plans to close schools, and disbursed public funds to send kids to private schools.

The 1954 ruling became known as Brown I, because a year later the high court completed its ruling in the Brown case with Brown II, which ordered the states to comply with Brown I "with all deliberate speed." Because the court did not specify a timeline for implementing Brown v. Board of Education, most states continued to "drag their feet" and stall efforts to desegregate. These delaying tactics ultimately resulted in protests that started the civil rights movement.

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: Documents Related to Brown v. Board of Education
Developed by a teacher, this lesson introduces students to key documents related to Brown v. Board of Education.

Lesson Plan—Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Lesson plan on the Supreme Court decision for students in grades 5-9 (adjustable depending on reading level), spans from one to four days, and includes description of materials, time, resources, and standards.

Timeline of Events Leading to the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, 1954
This excellent site maintained by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration briefly describes relevant events (beginning with the Dred Scott decision in 1857) leading up to the 1954 Brown decision. The significance of each event is also briefly described.

The U.S. Supreme Court

During the early 1950s, the U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed that segregation was wrong, but they were divided over whether they had the power to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson. Unable to reach an acceptable conclusion, the justices rescheduled oral arguments for Brown to the following year, asking both sides of the case to evaluate what Congress intended when the 14th Amendment was originally passed. In 1953, with only a month remaining before final arguments, Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who reportedly opposed overturning Plessy, died in his sleep. California Gov. Earl Warren took his place, and the ensuing arguments focused on the 14th Amendment and how it relates to public education.

When the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, there was very little government regulation of the education of black children, so the wording and intention of this amendment did not affect public schooling. Chief Justice Warren knew that a unanimous decision on the Brown case was crucial if Southern states were to comply. It took months to win over the two dissenting judges, which came about only after a major compromise was reached: agreement that the ruling would be implemented gradually rather than immediately. Citing the basic right of all American children to an equal education, as well as "intangible evidence," such as the fact that a feeling of inferiority hinders the learning ability of a child and that segregation by law will impair the motivation of black children to learn, the Supreme Court justices finally agreed unanimously that "... in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place."

Brief of the American Federation of Teachers as Amicus Curiae
The AFT submitted this brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953 calling on the court to consider the broader arguments for ending segregation in schools: (1)"The strengthening and preservation of democratic society demands an educated citizenry." (2) "The intent of the 14th amendment was to make the Negro a citizen and protect his voting rights." (3) "To exercise his right of choice effectively a voter must not only be educated but educated among all those who make up the total community." (4) "An integrated school system will add tremendously in developing harmonious relations among the people of the south and thereby throughout the country."

The Supreme Court and Brown v. Board of Ed.: The Deliberations Behind the Landmark 1954 Ruling
This three-part audio series from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" with Nina Totenberg provides a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. Supreme Court deliberations in Brown v. Board of Education.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was the head of the prosecution for Brown and would take the lead in many later cases dealing with segregation. He graduated from Howard University with a law degree in 1933 and began a one-man law firm in Baltimore that gained a reputation for helping poor blacks. After several years, Marshall was invited to work in the New York office of the NAACP as assistant special counsel. Eventually, he took the place of his teacher and mentor, Charles Houston, and ran the national office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. It was in this position that Marshall fought to overturn many segregation laws, the most notable of which was the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Between 1955 and 1960, Marshall's legal team at the NAACP filed seven major cases dealing with the right of black children to an education. In 1967, Marshall became the first black member of the U. S. Supreme Court.

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary
Created by Thurgood Marshall biographer, Juan Williams, this site includes text of Marshall speeches, a gallery of photos, and sections of the interviews Williams conducted with the Supreme Court justice.