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History of Brown v. Board of Education

The history of Brown v. Board of Education is a monumental chapter in the struggle against racial segregation in America's education system. The court ruling in Brown is a turning point in the civil rights movement. This FindLaw article will discuss the history of this landmark case. For more information on education law, visit FindLaw's Education Law section.


In the early 1950s, racial segregation in public schools was widespread. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Brown v. Board of Education was a combination of five lawsuits brought by Black students' families. These families challenged the county school board's racial discrimination in school systems. This group of Black parents challenged the racial school segregation of public schools.

These parents argued that the segregation of public schools based on race violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Congress' amendment states that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The court held that the state laws establishing separate schools for Black and white students were unconstitutional, paving the way for the integration of American public schools.

Southern states experienced violent opposition to the court's ruling on desegregation. White Southerners responded with violent protest. Through their dedicated efforts, many Americans helped create this historic moment. A moment that many consider a pivotal step on the way to establishing the foundation for the civil rights movement.

For more information about parents' involvement in education, visit FindLaw's The Roles of Parents and Local Governments in Education.

The Plessy Decision

An analysis of the evolution of the Brown decision is incomplete without a discussion of Plessy v. Ferguson, which Brown invalidated.

Homer Plessy, a mixed-race man, challenged the constitutionality of Louisiana's state law that required separate train accommodations for Black and white people. He argued that the law violated his equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy, deciding that segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment as long as the separate accommodations were equal in quality.

The Law Before the Brown Decision

Before the Brown decision, segregation was present in almost every facet of life, such as public education, public facilities, and housing. State legislatures passed laws that not only encouraged segregation but mandated segregation — for example, Jim Crow laws in the South.

The Supreme Court did not stray from its decision in Plessy. The court continued its tolerant stance toward segregation and discrimination in public education. For example, the court upheld a school's decision to deny a Chinese student attendance at a school for white children. Minorities continued to bolster their own schools while fighting segregation in public education.

The NAACP's Role in School Desegregation in the U.S.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been fighting for racial equality since its start in 1902. In the 1930s, the organization concentrated on creating legal advancements through its Legal Defense Fund. Charles Hamilton Houston and his protege' Thurgood Marshall led the Legal Defense Fund (Marshall would later become the first African-American justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

The NAACP worked alongside Howard University lawyers to dismantle segregation in public education. The NAACP sponsored several cases. These cases challenged the constitutionality of segregation in American public schools. These cases included the following:

  • Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada (1938): The court ruled that when the state provides legal training, it must be available to all qualified applicants. If there is only one school, students of all races could receive admission.
  • Sweat v. Painter (1950): This case arose after the University of Texas Law School denied admission to an applicant because he was Black. The court held that experience is part of the criteria for evaluating "substantive equality" in graduate education. The court held that a segregated law school for Black students could not provide equal educational opportunities.
  • McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education (1950): The court held that a public institution of higher learning could not provide different treatment to a student based on race because it violated the equal protection clause.

The victories in these Supreme Court cases established a solid legal foundation for the Brown case. The court consolidated Brown with three other class-action school-segregation lawsuits filed by the NAACP. These cases included:

  • Briggs v. Elliot in South Carolina (1951)
  • Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in Virginia (1952)
  • Gebhart v. Belton in Delaware (1952)

Bolling v. Sharpe was the fifth case filed by the NAACP. The NAACP filed Bolling v. Sharpe in the District of Columbia, independently of the other cases. In this case, the U.S. district court held that school segregation did not violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The U.S. District Court Review

The plaintiffs were 20 parents recruited by the NAACP. They filed a class-action lawsuit in the district court against the board of education of the city of Topeka, Kansas, on behalf of their children. The NAACP instructed the parents to try to enroll their children in all-white schools in their neighborhood. Schools denied the children admission and directed them to segregated schools.

The NAACP's legal strategy included selecting Oliver Brown as the representative plaintiff. Oliver Brown was a father, welder, and pastor. Oliver Brown was the father of the famous petitioner Linda Brown. NAACP believed a male would be preferable to the court. The court ruled against Brown.

The court ignored the argument that segregation hurt Black children's educational opportunities. The court ruled in favor of the school district using Plessy's "separate but equal" doctrine as the legal standard. The court recognized the harm caused by segregation. But they claimed that the separate schools were comparable in their:

  • Buildings
  • Curriculum
  • Quality of teachers

Supreme Court Review of Brown v. Board of Education

After the defeat at the district court level, Brown appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court consolidated the Brown case with other related cases filed in:

  • Delaware
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Washington, D.C.

Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was, at the time, chief counsel for the plaintiffs. He argued that the separate schools were not equal. Also, they could not achieve equality because segregation psychologically affected the children. Segregation in schools attempted to create an inferiority complex for Black children. This prevented them from getting a quality education.

Marshall used social science research, such as the "doll tests," to illustrate the point. The Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision. Chief Justice Earl Warren authored the decision, stating that public education should not use the "separate but equal doctrine" and that segregation is "inherently unequal."

Brown v. Board of Education II

Although the Brown decision was a prominent civil rights win, there was a lot of hesitation to the implementation of the decision. The court did not give guidance with a specific implementation plan until their decision in a follow-up ruling in Brown II.

Brown II instructed lower federal courts to handle further where they directed orders for desegregation cases. They demanded a "deliberate speed" implementation of desegregating public schools. But, this approach allowed local courts and officials to find ways to avoid desegregation. For example, Gov. Orval Faubus used the state's National Guard to prevent Black students from attending high school in Arkansas. These students are known as the "Little Rock Nine."

Protect Your Civil Rights

The Brown case had a profound impact on society and helped to integrate not only schools but paved the way for other civil rights advancements. Although segregation is no longer legal, it continues to impact education. If you have concerns about segregation on the basis of race in schools affecting you or your child, consult a civil rights attorney.

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