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History of Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on one of the most significant court decisions of the 20th century- Brown v. The Board of Education. The Court held that the state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, paving the way for the integration of American public schools. Many Americans through their dedicated efforts helped to create this historic moment, a moment which many consider a pivotal step on the way to establishing the foundation for the civil rights movement.

The Plessy Decision

An analysis on the evolution of the Brown decision is incomplete without a discussion on the Plessy v. Ferguson case since Brown invalidated Plessy. Homer Plessy, a man of mixed-race heritage, challenged the constitutionality of Lousiana's state law that required separate train accommodations for black and whites; he argued that the law was a violation of his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy, deciding that as long as the separate accommodations were equal in quality that segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Law Prior To the Brown Decision

Before the Brown decision, segregation existed not only in public education, but practically every facet of life including public facilities and housing. State legislatures passed laws that not only encouraged segregation, but the laws, like Jim Crow laws in the South, actually mandated segregation. The Supreme Court did not stray from its decision in Plessy and 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. Because of this attitude, African Americans and other minorities continued to bolster their own schools while fighting segregation in public education.

The NAACP'S Role

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been fighting for racial equality since its inception in 1902. However, in the 1930's, the organization concentrated on creating legal advancements through its Legal Defense Fund. Lead by Charles Hamilton Houston and his protege' Thurgood Marshall (who 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 cased that challenged the constitutionality of segregation in American public schools including 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, then students of all races could be admitted.
  • Sweat v. Painter (1950): The Court held that experience is part of the criteria used to evaluate "substantive equality" in graduate education.
  • 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 solely 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 District Court Review

The plaintiffs, twenty parents recruited by the NAACP, filed a class action lawsuit in the district court, against the Board of Education of the city of Topeka Kansas on behalf of their twenty children. Per the NAACP's instructions, the parents attempted to enroll their children in all-white schools in their neighborhood. One by one, the children were denied admission to the schools and were directed to the segregated schools. The NAACP's legal strategy including selecting Oliver Brown, a father, welder and pastor, as the representative-plaintiff because they believed that a male would be preferable to the Court. Despite the argument that segregation had a harmful impact on black children, the court ruled against Brown, in favor of the school district using Plessy's "separate but equal" doctrine as the legal standard. Although the court did acknowledge the harmful impact that segregation caused, the court claimed that the separate schools were comparable in their buildings, curriculum, and the quality of teachers.

The Supreme Court Review

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 that had been filed in Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington D.C. Thurgood Marshall was chief counsel for the plaintiffs. He argued that the separate schools were not equal and could not be equal because of the psychological toll it took on the children being segregated. Segregation helped create an inferiority complex for black children being educated in separate schools that prevented them for 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 wrote the decision that the "separate but equal doctrine" should not be used in public education and that segregation is "inherently unequal."

Although the Brown decision was a major 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 Brown II where they directed orders that the desegregation of public schools be carried out with "deliberate speed."

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 are concerned about you or your child being affected by segregation in school, then talk to a civil rights attorney about your rights.

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