Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), is a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court, overturning earlier rulings going back to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, declaring the establishment by state law of separate public schools for black and white students inherently unequal. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court's unanimous (9-0) decision stated, in no uncertain terms, that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, this victory thereby paving the way for integration and the Civil Rights Movement.
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 of Kansas. The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their twenty children.
Brown vs. Board of Education
The case of Brown v. Board of Education as heard before the Supreme Court combined five cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliott (filed in South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.).
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 School.
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 which made the schools separate but not equal. The NAACP's chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall—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.
Supreme Court review
The Topeka middle schools had been integrated since 1941. Topeka High School was integrated from its inception in the late 1800s. 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 of 1953, integrating two attendance districts. All the Topeka elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers in January of 1956, although existing students were allowed to continue attending their prior assigned schools at their option.
The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor of McKinley Burnett, NAACP chapter president who organized the case.
Monroe Elementary was designated a U.S. National Historic Site unit of the National Park Service on October 26, 1992.
The 1954 decision reversed the precedent set by the Court's previous decision in Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education, (1899)*, which had specifically validated the segregation of public schools. Brown did not, however, result in the immediate desegregation of America's public schools, nor did it mandate desegregation of public accommodations, such as restaurants or bathrooms, that were owned by private parties, which would not be accomplished until the passage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it was a giant step forward for the civil rights movement, placing the weight of the Federal Judiciary squarely behind the forces of desegregation.
Brown is often referred to as Brown I, because the following year, 1955, the Court completed its ruling. In this second Brown decision, Brown II, the Warren Court ordered the states' compliance with Brown I "with all deliberate speed." Brown II was argued by Robert L. Carter, who had earlier initiated some of the cases consolidated at the Supreme Court into Brown I. Even so, formal compliance with the provisions of these two cases was not expedited, and in the South most public schools would not be desegregated until about 1970 under the Nixon administration. Nearly twenty years after Brown, school desegregation would come to the court's attention again in two cases involving the use of busing to integrate students across school districts: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and Milliken v. Bradley, .
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the unanimous Court in Brown:
William Rehnquist wrote a memo titled "A Random Thought on the Segregation Cases" when he was a law clerk for Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1952, during early deliberations that led to the Brown v. Board of Education 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." Most Senators and Representatives issued press releases hailing the ruling.
Legal criticism and praise
In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In Brown II the court delegated the task of carrying out the desegregation to district courts with orders that desegregation occur "with all deliberate speed," a phrase traceable to Francis Thompson's poem, The Hound of Heaven. Some 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.
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 Union, 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 the Brown case after a 25-year hiatus, but denied the plaintiffs' request finding the schools "unitary". In 1989, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit 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 certiorari 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 is named after the Scott family attorneys for their role in the Brown case and civil rights.
* See Case citation for an explanation of these numbers.
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. Board 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 (1948)* - restrictive covenants
Mendez v. Westminister School District, 64 F. Supp. 544 (1946)* - prohibits segregating Mexican-American children in California
Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950)* - segregated law schools in Texas
McLaurin 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 Carolina.
Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 103 F. Supp. 337 (1952)* Brown Case #2 - Prince Edward County, Virginia.
Gebhart v. Belton, 33 Del. Ch. 144 (1952)* Brown Case #3 - Claymont, Delaware
Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (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 Amendment.
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)* - banned racial discrimination in public places, particularly in public accommodations even in private property.
Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)* - banned anti-miscegenation laws (race-based restrictions on marriage).
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971)* - established bussing as a solution
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, 127 S. Ct. 2738 (2007)* - rejected using race as the sole determining factor for assigning students to schools
List of United States Supreme Court Cases Related cases
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. Common misconceptions
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.
Charles Hamilton Houston
"Southern Manifesto", a document written in 1956 by legislators in the United States Congress opposed to racial integration in public places
Tape v. Hurley
Warriors Don't Cry, a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine members.
Plessy v. Ferguson
Parents v. Seattle