Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) is the U.S. Supreme Court’s most significant ruling on equal educational opportunities and race in American history. Brown I served as the catalyst that led to farreaching changes not only in schooling—culminating with legislative changes safeguarding the educational rights of women and students with disabilities, among others—but also in the area of civil rights.
In Brown I (1954), the Court held that de jure segregation in public schools due solely to race deprived minority children of equal educational opportunities in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. On the same day that it announced its judgment in Brown I, the Court struck down segregation in the public schools of Washington, D.C., reasoning that the practice violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government (Bolling v. Sharpe, 1954). A year later, in Brown II (1955), the Court initiated long overdue steps to dismantle segregated public school systems, calling for the creation of so-called unitary systems wherein children were no longer segregated based on race.

Facts of the Case


At issue in Brown I was the pernicious doctrine of “separate but equal,” a doctrine that the Supreme Court espoused in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case from Louisiana dealing with discrimination in public railway accommodations. The concept traces its origins to a dispute wherein the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Roberts v. City of Boston (1850) denied an African American student the opportunity to attend a school for White children that was closer to her home. Three years after Plessy, in Cumming v. County Board of Education of Richmond County (1899), the Court went even further in upholding laws that established separate schools for Whites, even though no comparable schools were available for students who were African American. The Court explicitly extended “separate but equal” to K–12 education in Gong Lum v. Rice (1927), a dispute from Mississippi in which it upheld the exclusion of a student of Chinese descent from a public school for White children.
Brown I was a consolidation of four class action lawsuits on behalf of African American students who had been denied admission to schools attended by White children. State laws in Clarendon County (South Carolina), Prince Edward County (Virginia), and New Castle County (Delaware) required racial segregation; it was permitted by law in Kansas. After being unable to reach a decision during its 1952–1953 term, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of rehearing oral arguments in December of 1953. The Court handed down its monumental ruling on May 17, 1954.

The Court’s Ruling


In an opinion written by the recently appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down de jure segregation in public schools. At the beginning of the Court’s written opinion, Warren acknowledged that “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 (p. 493).” Applying the principles enunciated in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McClaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950), companion cases that prohibited interschool and intraschool segregation, respectively, in higher education in Missouri and Oklahoma on the basis of tangible and intangible inequities to elementary and secondary schools, the Court focused on the detrimental psychological effects of segregation on African American students. Then, writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren framed the issue thus: “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?” (p. 493) Warren succinctly answered, “We believe that it does” (p. 493).
In one of the earliest instances of its doing so, the Court relied in part on data from the social sciences, in evidence presented by psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, who testified about the deleterious effect that segregation had on African American children. Relying on data in what may be the most important footnote in American judicial history (p. 495, note 11), which refers to these deleterious effects, the justices held “that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (p. 495).
As important as Brown I was, and remains, for unequivocally repudiating the doctrine of “separate but equal” that it enunciated in Plessy, the Supreme Court did not address remedies for segregated schooling. Instead, the Court ordered further arguments on how to redress segregation in public education.
In Brown II, rendered on May 31, 1955, another unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Warren, the Supreme Court neither mandated an immediate end to nor set a timetable for eliminating school segregation. However, in calling for the end of segregated schooling “with all deliberate speed” (p. 301), a promise that it did not deliver, Brown II did offer general guidance to the lower courts, directing them to fashion their decrees on equitable principles characterized by flexibility. Moreover, aware of the farreaching impact of its decision, involving such matters as administration, school transportation, personnel, admissions policies, and changes in local laws, the Court reasoned that once progress was under way, the lower courts could grant more time to implement its ruling.
Brown I, coupled with the limited scope of remedies ordered in Brown II, represents a compromise that attempted to steer a middle course. On the one hand, the Supreme Court recognized that it could not permit segregated schooling to remain in place indefinitely. Yet, on the other, the Court sought to avoid lecturing and even more conflict in what it presciently perceived would be a recalcitrant and resentful South. An unfortunate and unforeseen consequence of Brown I and II was that in attempting to limit conflict by easing equality in, the Court inadvertently may have strengthened the resolve of opponents who heightened their resistance. If, as opponents of Brown I and II might have argued, equal educational opportunities were as important as the Court, and others, insisted, then it was unclear why the justices did not order an immediate end to segregated schooling. As witnessed by the struggles to implement Brown I and II as well as their judicial progeny, the defiance that these monumental cases spawned had led to creation of inequalities that continue to plague many American public schools.
Charles J. Russo

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Equal Educational Opportunities; Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment; Segregation, De Facto; Segregation, De Jure; Social Sciences and the Law; Warren Court; Warren, Earl
Further Readings
  • Tushnet, M., & Katya Lezin, K. (1991). What really happened in Brown v. Board of Education. Columbia Law Review, 91, 1867.
Legal Citations
  • Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954).
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka I, 347 U.S.483 (1954).
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka II, 349 U.S. 294 (1955).
  • Cumming v. County Board of Education, 175 U.S. 528 (1899).
  • Gong Lum v. Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927).
  • McClaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950).
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
  • Roberts v. City of Boston, 59 Mass. 198, 5 Cush. 198 (1850).
  • Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).