What Was Brown vs Board of Education?

Read about the landmark case of Brown vs Board of Education and how it changed the landscape of public education in America.

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Introduction

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, ruling unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The court’s decision began a long process of integrating America’s public schools, a controversial process that continues today.

The case originated in Topeka, Kansas, where black parents sued the local school district for not providing their children with the same quality of education as white children. The lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in December 1953.

In its ruling, the court overturned its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had allowed racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. The court ruled that segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The Brown decision led to a gradual process of school integration across the United States. In some areas, integration was achieved peacefully; in others it was met with violent resistance from white citizens. Fifty years after the Brown decision, America’s public schools are still struggling to achieve true racial diversity.

The Plessy v. Ferguson Case

In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” accommodations were constitutional. The decision resulted in increased racial segregation in all areas of public life, including education.

In the years that followed, a number of cases challenging the constitutionality of “separate but equal” education were brought before the Supreme Court, but each time the court upheld the Plessy decision.

The Brown v. Board of Education case was different. It was based on the argument that “separate but equal” educational facilities were inherently unequal and violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”

On May 17, 1954, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate but equal” education was indeed unconstitutional and ordered that schools be desegregated “with all deliberate speed.”

The Brown v. Board of Education Case

In the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a concerted campaign to end racial segregation in public schools. The centerpiece of this campaign was a lawsuit filed by the NAACP on behalf of plaintiffs in Kansas, Virginia, and Delaware. The goal of this lawsuit was to get the Supreme Court to rule that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional.

The suit against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education was brought on behalf of Oliva and Leola Brown, two African American girls who had to travel miles every day to attend an all-black school even though there was a white school only seven blocks from their home. The case against Virginia was filed on behalf of Dorothy E. Davis, who had to walk past five all-white schools to get to her all-black school even though her neighborhood was only two blocks from one of the white schools. And finally, the case against Delaware was brought on behalf of Margaret Reese and six other African American plaintiffs who were attending all-black schools even though there were three empty white schools nearby.

In May 1954, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” education violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. This decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, a 1896 ruling that had upheld “separate but equal” segregated facilities as constitutional. In its Brown v. Board decision, the Supreme Court ordered states to desegregate their public schools “with all deliberate speed.”

The Impact of Brown v. Board of Education

It has been sixty years since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in public schools. The case is widely viewed as one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement, and its effects are still felt today.

The case began in 1951, when a group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas filed a lawsuit against the city’s school district. The plaintiffs argued that segregated schools were unequal and violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law.”

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that “separate but equal” education was unconstitutional. The Court ordered that desegregation must happen “with all deliberate speed.”

In the years following the decision, many school districts across the country were slow to comply with the ruling. In some cases, violent resistance to desegregation led to federal intervention. In 1957, for example, President Eisenhower deployed troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to escort nine black students into an all-white high school.

Today, while racial segregation in schools has declined overall, many public school districts are still racially imbalanced. In 2013, for example, nearly half of all black and Latino students attended schools that were more than 90% non-white. And according to a 2014 study, almost one-third of black students and one-sixth of Latino students attend “apartheid schools” that have zero white students.

The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education is complex and ongoing. But there is no doubt that the decision was a landmark moment in American history—and its effects are still being felt today.

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