Modern History Sourcebook:
Brown v. Board, 1954
The US Supreme court case Brown v. Board of Education of
Topeka overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court had allowed held racial segregation
in public places, including schools, as long as they provided
"separate but equal " facilities. The equalizing aspects
of the 14th Amendment to the constitution - with its insistence
that all were equal before the law and government - was systematically
gutted of any real effect by large parts of the American government
at all levels.
As a matter of historical judgment, we may note that treatment
of Blacks and Whites was never equal.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP) with Thurgood Marshall (later a Supreme Court Justice),
acting as lead counsel, engaged in a careful legal war against
Plessy. First the NAACP brought suit to secure desegregation
in places it knew the Justices could not pretend "separate"
actually meant "equal" - that is in the segregated publically-funded
law schools. After winning preliminary victories in these areas,
the NAACP challenged "separate but equal " formula at
its most crucial - the race-divided state funded educational schools
of many states.. Speaking for a unanimous Court in Brown v.
Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Chief Justice Earl Warren
concurred with the plaintiff. The following year the Court ordered
the nation 's schools to integrate "with all deliberate speed.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
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. Because
of the obvious importance of the question presented, the Court
took jurisdiction. Argument was heard in the 1952 Term, and reargument
was heard this Term on certain questions propounded by the Court.
Reargument 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 postWar Amendments undoubtedly intended
them to remove all legal distinctions among "all persons
born or naturalized in the United States. " Their opponents,
j ust 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.
An additional reason for the inconclusive nature of the Amendment's
history, with respect to segregated schools, is the status of
public education at that time. In the South, the movement toward
free common schools, supported by general taxation, had not yet
taken hold. Education of white children was largely in the hands
of private groups. Education of Negroes was almost nonexistent
and practically all of the race were illiterate. In fact, any
education of Negroes was forbidden by law in some states. Today,
in contrast, many Negroes have achieved outstanding success in
the arts and sciences as well as in the business and professional
world. It is true that public school education at the time of
the Amendment had advanced further in the North, but the effect
of the Amendment on Northern States was generally ignored in the
congressional debates. Even in the North, the conditions of public
education did not approximate those existing today. The curriculum
was usually rudimentary; ungraded schools were common in rural
areas; the school term was but three months a year in many states;
and compulsory school attendance was virtually unknown. As a consequence,
it is not surprising that there should be so little in the history
of the Fourteenth Amendment relating to its intended effect on
In the first cases in this Court construing the Fourteenth Amendment,
decided shortly after its adoption, the Court interpreted it as
proscribing all stateimposed discriminations against the Negro
race. 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.
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
required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities,
even service in the armed forces. 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 the 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.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 48396
(1954). pp. 48892.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997