Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state-sponsored segregation. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court‘s unanimous (9–0) decision stated 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 of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement.
For much of the sixty years preceding the Brown case, race relations in the U.S. had been dominated by racial segregation. This policy had been endorsed in 1896 by the United States Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment (“no State shall… deny to any person… the equal protection of the laws.”).
The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that this system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but equal treatment of both white and black Americans, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services, and treatment for black Americans. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 that prohibited it. Brown was influenced by UNESCO‘s 1950 Statement, signed by a wide variety of internationally renowned scholars, titled The Race Question. This declaration denounced previous attempts at scientifically justifying racism as well as morally condemning racism. Another work that the Supreme Court cited was Gunnar Myrdal‘s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Myrdal had been a signatory of the UNESCO declaration. The research performed by the educational psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark also influenced the Court’s decision. The Clarks’ “doll test” studies presented substantial arguments to the Supreme Court about how segregation had an impact on black schoolchildren’s mental status.
Brown v. Board of Education
In 1951, a class action suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. The plaintiffs were thirteen Topeka parents on behalf of their twenty children.
The suit called for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation. Separate elementary schools were operated by the Topeka Board of Education under an 1879 Kansas law, which permitted (but did not require) districts to maintain separate elementary school facilities for black and white students in twelve communities with populations over 15,000. The plaintiffs had been recruited by the leadership of the Topeka NAACP. Notable among the Topeka NAACP leaders were the chairman McKinley Burnett; Charles Scott, one of three serving as legal counsel for the chapter; and Lucinda Todd.
The named plaintiff, Oliver L. Brown, was a parent, a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad, an assistant pastor at his local church, and an African American. He was convinced to join the lawsuit by Scott, a childhood friend. Brown’s daughter Linda, a third grader, had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to Monroe Elementary, her segregated black school one mile (1.6 km) away, while Sumner Elementary, a white school, was seven blocks from her house.
As directed by the NAACP leadership, the parents each attempted to enroll their children in the closest neighborhood school in the fall of 1951. They were each refused enrollment and directed to the segregated schools. Linda Brown Thompson later recalled the experience in a 2004 PBS documentary:
- . . . well. like I say, we lived in an integrated neighborhood and I had all of these playmates of different nationalities. And so when I found out that day that I might be able to go to their school, I was just thrilled, you know. And I remember walking over to Sumner school with my dad that day and going up the steps of the school and the school looked so big to a smaller child. And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal and they left me out . . . to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised, you know, as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand and we walked home from the school. I just couldn’t understand what was happening because I was so sure that I was going to go to school with Mona and Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.
The Kansas case, “Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas,” was named after Oliver Brown as a legal strategy to have a man at the head of the roster. Also, it was felt by lawyers with the National Chapter of the NAACP, that having Mr. Brown at the head of the roster would be better received by the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. The thirteen plaintiffs were: Oliver Brown, Darlene Brown, Lena Carper, Sadie Emmanuel, Marguerite Emerson, Shirley Fleming, Zelma Henderson, Shirley Hodison, Maude Lawton, Alma Lewis, Iona Richardson, and Lucinda Todd. The last surviving plaintiff, Zelma Henderson, died in Topeka, on May 20, 2008, at the age of 88.
The District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which had upheld a state law requiring “separate but equal” segregated facilities for blacks and whites in railway cars. The three-judge District Court panel found that segregation in public education has a detrimental effect upon negro children, but denied relief on the ground that the negro and white schools in Topeka were substantially equal with respect to buildings, transportation, curricular, and educational qualifications of teachers.
Supreme Court review
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 Gebhart case was the only one where a trial court, confirmed by the Delaware Supreme Court, found that discrimination was unlawful; in all the other cases the plaintiffs had lost as the original courts had found discrimination to be lawful.
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 that 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.
Unanimous opinion and key holding
In spring 1953 the Court heard the case but was unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953, with special attention to whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks.
The case was being reargued at the behest of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who used re-argument as a stalling tactic, to allow the Court to gather a unanimous consensus around a Brown opinion that would outlaw segregation. Chief Justice Vinson had been a key stumbling block. The justices in support of desegregation spent much effort convincing those who initially dissented to join a unanimous opinion. Even though the legal effect would be same for a majority versus unanimous decision, it was felt that it was vital to not have a dissent which could be relied upon by opponents of desegregation as a legitimizing counterargument.
Conference notes and draft decisions illustrate the division of opinions before the decision was issued. Justices Douglas, Black, Burton, and Minton were predisposed to overturn Plessy. Fred M. Vinson noted that Congress had not issued desegregation legislation; Stanley F. Reed discussed incomplete cultural assimilation and states’ rights and was inclined to the view that segregation worked to the benefit of the African-American community; Tom C. Clark wrote that “we had led the states on to think segregation is OK and we should let them work it out.” Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson disapproved of segregation, but were also opposed to judicial activism and expressed concerns about the proposed decision’s enforceability. After Vinson died in September 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Warren had supported the integration of Mexican-American students in California school systems following Mendez v. Westminster.
While all but one justice personally rejected segregation, the self-restraint faction questioned whether the Constitution gave the Court the power to order its end. The activist faction believed the Fourteenth Amendment did give the necessary authority and were pushing to go ahead. Warren, who held only a recess appointment, held his tongue until the Senate, dominated by southerners, confirmed his appointment.
Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of Negroes. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive Southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion.
Although most justices were immediately convinced, Warren spent some time after this famous speech convincing everyone to sign onto the opinion. Justices Robert Jackson and Stanley Reed finally decided to drop their dissent to what was by then an opinion backed by all the others. The final decision was unanimous. Warren drafted the basic opinion and kept circulating and revising it until he had an opinion endorsed by all the members of the Court.
The key holding of the Court was that, even if segregated black and white schools were of equal quality in facilities and teachers, segregation by itself was harmful to black students and unconstitutional. They found that a significant psychological and social disadvantage was given to black children from the nature of segregation itself, drawing on research conducted by Kenneth Clark assisted by June Shagaloff. This aspect was vital because the question was not whether the schools were “equal”, which under Plessy they nominally should have been, but whether the doctrine of separate was constitutional. The justices answered with a strong “no”:
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… 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… 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.
The Topeka middle schools had been integrated since 1941. Topeka High School was integrated from its inception in 1871 and its sports teams from 1949 on. 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 1953, integrating two attendance districts. All the Topeka elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers in January 1956, although existing students were allowed to continue attending their prior assigned schools at their option. Plaintiff Zelma Henderson, in a 2004 interview, recalled that no demonstrations or tumult accompanied desegregation in Topeka’s schools:
- “They accepted it,” she said. “It wasn’t too long until they integrated the teachers and principals.”
The Topeka Public Schools administration building is named in honor of McKinley Burnett, NAACP chapter president who organized the case.
Not everyone accepted the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In Virginia, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. organized the Massive Resistance movement that included the closing of schools rather than desegregating them. See, for example, The Southern Manifesto. For more implications of the Brown decision, see Desegregation.
In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out his state’s National Guard to block black students’ entry to Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by deploying elements of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to Arkansas and by federalizing Faubus’ National Guard.
Also in 1957, Florida‘s response was mixed. Its legislature passed an Interposition Resolution denouncing the decision and declaring it null and void. But Florida Governor Thomas LeRoy Collins, though joining in the protest against the court decision, refused to sign it arguing that the attempt to overturn the ruling must be done in legal methods.
In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace personally blocked the door to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two black students. This became the infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door where Wallace personally backed his “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” policy that he had stated in his 1963 inaugural address. He moved aside only when confronted by General Henry Graham of the Alabama National Guard, who was ordered by President John F. Kennedy to intervene.
The intellectual roots of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark United States Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation in 1896 under the doctrine of “separate but equal” were, in part, tied to the scientific racism of the era. However, the popular support for the decision was more likely a result of the racist beliefs held by many whites at the time. In deciding Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rejected the ideas of scientific racists about the need for segregation, especially in schools. The Court buttressed its holding by citing (in footnote 11) social science research about the harms to black children caused by segregated schools.
Both scholarly and popular ideas of hereditarianism played an important role in the attack and backlash that followed the Brown decision. The Mankind Quarterly was founded in 1960, in part in response to the Brown decision.
Legal criticism and praise
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.” Rehnquist also argued for Plessy with other law clerks. However, during his 1971 confirmation hearings, Rehnquist said, “I believe that the memorandum was prepared by me as a statement of Justice Jackson’s tentative views for his own use.” Justice Jackson had initially planned to join a dissent in Brown. Later, at his 1986 hearings for the slot of Chief Justice, Rehnquist put further distance between himself and the 1952 memo: “The bald statement that Plessy was right and should be reaffirmed, was not an accurate reflection of my own views at the time.” In any event, while serving on the Supreme Court, Rehnquist made no effort to reverse or undermine the Brown decision, and frequently relied upon it as precedent.
Some aspects of the Brown decision are still debated. Notably, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, himself an African American, wrote in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) that at the very least, Brown I has been misunderstood by the courts.
- Brown I did not say that “racially isolated” schools were inherently inferior; the harm that it identified was tied purely to de jure segregation, not de facto segregation. Indeed, Brown I itself did not need to rely upon any psychological or social-science research in order to announce the simple, yet fundamental truth that the Government cannot discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race. . . .
- Segregation was not unconstitutional because it might have caused psychological feelings of inferiority. Public school systems that separated blacks and provided them with superior educational resources making blacks “feel” superior to whites sent to lesser schools—would violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether or not the white students felt stigmatized, just as do school systems in which the positions of the races are reversed. Psychological injury or benefit is irrelevant . . .
- Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. (. . .) Because of their “distinctive histories and traditions,” black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.
Some Constitutional originalists, notably Raoul Berger in his influential 1977 book “Government by Judiciary,” make the case that Brown cannot be defended by reference to the original understanding of the 14th Amendment. They support this reading of the 14th amendment by noting that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not ban segregated schools. Other originalists, including Michael W. McConnell, a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in his article “Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions,” argue that the Radical Reconstructionists who spearheaded the 14th Amendment were in favor of desegregated southern schools.
The case also has attracted some criticism from more liberal authors, including some who say that Chief Justice Warren’s reliance on psychological criteria to find a harm against segregated blacks was unnecessary. For example, Drew S. Days has written: “we have developed criteria for evaluating the constitutionality of racial classifications that do not depend upon findings of psychic harm or social science evidence. They are based rather on the principle that ‘distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality,’ Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943). . . .”
In his book “The Tempting of America” (page 82), Robert Bork endorsed the Brown decision as follows:
- By 1954, when Brown came up for decision, it had been apparent for some time that segregation rarely if ever produced equality. Quite aside from any question of psychology, the physical facilities provided for blacks were not as good as those provided for whites. That had been demonstrated in a long series of cases . . . The Court’s realistic choice, therefore, was either to abandon the quest for equality by allowing segregation or to forbid segregation in order to achieve equality. There was no third choice. Either choice would violate one aspect of the original understanding, but there was no possibility of avoiding that. Since equality and segregation were mutually inconsistent, though the ratifiers did not understand that, both could not be honored. When that is seen, it is obvious the Court must choose equality and prohibit state-imposed segregation. The purpose that brought the fourteenth amendment into being was equality before the law, and equality, not separation, was written into the law.
In June 1987, Philip Elman, a civil rights attorney who served as an associate in the Solicitor General’s office during Harry Truman’s term, claimed he and Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter were mostly responsible for the Supreme Court’s decision, and stated that the NAACP’s arguments did not present strong evidence. Elman has been criticized for offering a self-aggrandizing history of the case, omitting important facts, and denigrating the work of civil rights attorneys who had laid the groundwork for the decision over many decades. However, Frankfurter was also known for being one of court’s most outspoken advocates of the judicial restraint philosophy of basing court rulings on existing law rather than personal or political considerations. Public officials in the United States today are nearly unanimous in lauding the ruling. In May 2004, the fiftieth anniversary of the ruling, President George W. Bush spoke at the opening of the “Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site“, calling Brown “a decision that changed America for the better, and forever.” Most Senators and Representatives issued press releases hailing the ruling.
In 1955, the Supreme Court considered arguments by the schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. In their decision, which became known as “Brown II“ the court delegated the task of carrying out school 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.
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. Many Southern states and school districts interpreted “Brown II” as legal justification for resisting, delaying, and avoiding significant integration for years—and in some cases for a decade or more—using such tactics as closing down school systems, using state money to finance segregated “private” schools, and “token” integration where a few carefully selected black children were admitted to former white-only schools but the vast majority remained in underfunded, unequal black schools.
For example, based on “Brown II,” the U.S. District Court ruled that Prince Edward County, Virginia did not have to desegregate immediately. When another court case in 1959 ruled that the county’s schools finally had to desegregate, the county board of supervisors stopped appropriating money for public schools which remained closed for five years, from 1959 to 1964. White students in the county were given assistance to attend white-only “private academies” that were taught by teachers formerly employed by the public school system, while black students had no education at all unless they moved out of the county.
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